Rubber stamp

April 30, 2006

It is no surprise that the state Public Service Commission approved the governor's agreement with Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. on electricity rate relief. But the rapidity with which the commission acted is stunning -- and disturbing.

The PSC held a single hearing on the plan to phase in the transition to 72 percent higher, market-priced electricity. It was held in downtown Baltimore, starting at 2 p.m. Thursday and lasted about four hours -- a time when many BGE customers are at work. It was a farce.

And then less than two hours after the hearing ended, the commission, which votes in private, approved the plan with a slight modification. The decision was announced late Friday after The Sun reported the vote.

This is one rubber stamp that apparently was inked and ready from the get-go.

You may recall the hubbub when e-mails turned up showing that PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler has been more than a little cozy with a utility industry lobbyist; more such e-mails came out yesterday. You may also recall that the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has not only replaced four of five PSC commissioners since 2002 but also cleaned house at the agency. And you may recall that the state legislature recently passed a bill -- vetoed by Mr. Ehrlich -- that would have canned the commissioners.

Given all that, you'd think that the PSC would at least make a show of serious deliberation on the so-called rate-relief plan. (It really doesn't provide much rate relief; it mainly delays the pain.) Instead, its inquiry into the governor's plan was frightfully thin, essentially consisting of softball questions to the company (Will your opt-in Web site be consumer friendly?) and evasive answers to the public's questions. (We're just here to talk about rate relief -- not the high rates themselves.)

The most telling moment was when Del. Curtis S. Anderson, one of only two legislators to show up for the hearing, asked Mr. Schisler if the PSC had taken into account the size of BGE's profits last year in considering the relief plan. (Its parent, Constellation Energy Group, reported record earnings.) The Baltimore Democrat's point was that the company could kick in more to provide greater relief. Mr. Schisler did his best not to respond directly, casting the very definite impression that improving the governor's plan for the benefit of consumers was the farthest thing from his mind.

Delegate Anderson is leading an effort to get enough legislative votes to bring the General Assembly back into session to force a better rate-relief plan than the governor's. But that's not the body to deal with this issue. The responsibility by law is the PSC's, and it has failed to serve the best interests of Marylanders.

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