Legislators grabbed power to put public back in PSC

April 06, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Did you happen to notice that the Maryland General Assembly kind of fired everybody on the Public Service Commission the other day? It also took away an appointment power enjoyed by the governor of Maryland for pretty much the past century. Ouch. I'd call this one for the archives.

The PSC has been called the PSC since its inception in 1910. (Unfortunately, it never had one of those long, British-style names that amuse me - you know, something like "Oversight Bureau of Common Carriers, Telegraph, Electrical, Gas & Steam Conveyors." The General Assembly of 1910 kept it simple and put "public" and "service" in the name from the start.)

Those who serve on the PSC are supposed to be "broadly representative of the public interest" and regulate public service providers and utilities - everything from electrical corporations to bus companies - that do business here. The General Assembly created the PSC during a period of bold reforms introduced under a progressive Democratic governor from Cecil County (they had such men once) named Austin Crothers.

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Dan Rodricks in the Maryland section yesterday incorrectly stated that some of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Public Service Commission appointees are former power-industry executives. The Sun regrets the error.

According to Robert Brugger's history of Maryland, Crothers' rise to prominence and his term as governor were marked by efforts to root out waste in Annapolis and corruption in political campaigns, strengthen election laws and regulate banking and insurance. Crothers supported higher food safety standards, better care for the mentally ill and workmen's compensation.

"We want to put Maryland in the front rank of the march of progress," Crothers said.

Nearly a century later, an Arbutus Republican named Ehrlich is governor, and he said this: "Of course I was going to bring in more business-oriented commissioners. ... We ran on a pro-business platform."

Ehrlich was speaking there on WBAL Radio about the PSC.

He was defending his appointments.

Under the law passed in Crothers' time, the governor appoints the PSC.

Ehrlich has appointed four of the five sitting commissioners. Some of them are power-industry executives and, if you go by what's indicated in his e-mail exchanges with a certain lobbyist, the chairman of commission, Ken Schisler, appears to be a little too footsie-cutsie with the power industry.

And all this came to public attention just as the public was getting good and peeved about a humongous electric-bill increase from BGE, approved by the PSC.

So the General Assembly decided to pretty much fire the PSC and start over.

Does this mean Maryland is an anti-business state?


It means we've got politicians in Annapolis who are trying to (a) save face in an election year, (b) soften the blow of the humongous consumer electric-bill increase, and (c) restore public trust in a government commission that lost its way.

On Friday, veto-proof majorities in both the Maryland Senate and the House of Delegates voted to dump the five commissioners, including Schisler, and take the power to appoint all but one of them away from the governor. (The other four will be appointed, two each, by the Senate president and the House speaker.)

Amazing how a little 72 percent increase in electric bills can set people off.

Pow! Smash! Broken glass! Splintered Schisler!

Look, it's politics. It always is. You can't get around that, especially in an election year.

But this power grab by the legislature is fine. Really. In this case, change is good. Change is restorative, bringing the PSC back to its raison d'etre.

Having a PSC that's a little more hip to the public interest isn't a bad thing.

There's nothing anti-business about having an independent agency keep an eye on how companies that provide public services and vital commodities function and set their fees. In certain areas of life and commerce, price controls and regulated profits are a good thing.

For years, Maryland had that.

But if you point your nose at recent history - the PSC since Ehrlich swept house and brought in the former utility industry execs and a pro-deregulation guy like Schisler - you pick up an unappealing smell.

It wasn't just that the PSC accepted an increase in electric bills that averages $743 a year per household for BGE customers. Hey, we had it coming, based on the conditions of the electrical deregulation approved by this same Democratic-dominated General Assembly seven years ago. (Note: This isn't the first time I've pointed out that Democrats drove deregulation in 1999. But you know what? I can't find a Republican who voted against it, either, and the backers at the time included a certain GOP back-bencher named Schisler.)

The thing that really galls people is the plan the PSC approved for the implementation of one of the biggest one-year price increases in the nation: If you can't afford to pay BGE the full increase this summer, you pay 21 percent, then stretch payments out over two years - at only 5 percent interest!

Isn't that special?

They'll extend credit at 5 percent for two years - unless you tell them otherwise.

The PSC apparently thought this was a good idea for 1.2 million customers.

I don't think this is what the General Assembly of 1910 had in mind. So the General Assembly of 2006 decided to make a little change in personnel and in the law, and it's all good. Governor Ehrlich doesn't like it, but Governor Crothers - if the man wasn't dead, the man would be down with it.


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