City's victory revives talk of special session

Critics of BGE rate increase see opening for disclosures, legislative intervention

May 12, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

The city of Baltimore's preliminary victory in a lawsuit against the state Public Service Commission has added momentum to the push for a special session of the General Assembly to deal with utility issues, though some caution that neither the suit nor legislation would provide immediate relief from pending 72 percent BGE electric rate increases.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the lawsuit could reveal information kept private by BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy, including executive salary plans and details of its pending merger with Florida-based FPL Group Inc. The disclosures, he said, could help build public support for the legislature to take action.

"I think [the lawsuit] gives everyone an opportunity to look at issues that Constellation previously withheld and continues to withhold," Miller said.

The Senate leader said he met this week with House Speaker Michael E. Busch to discuss options for legislative intervention.

He acknowledged that any steps taken by the General Assembly would likely prompt a lawsuit by Constellation Energy.

But Miller said the legislature could attempt to change the law for electricity purchases, spread the rate increases over a longer period, recover money that customers paid for the expected but unrealized drop in value of Constellation's power plants and replace all PSC members.

The commission, under fire for months from those who believe it is too industry-friendly, suffered another blow yesterday when the state's Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the regulators violated state law in March when four members met behind closed doors with top aides to the governor. The meeting was held in the midst of a contentious General Assembly session, with lawmakers considering several bills related to the PSC.

The ruling was issued on the same day that PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler was subjected to hours of aggressive questioning before a General Assembly committee investigating Ehrlich administration personnel practices.

Democrats have accused Schisler of firing or forcing out consumer advocates in his agency and replacing them with pro-utility regulators at the administration's behest. Schisler denied the charges.

Over the past few weeks, consumer advocates and customers have expressed widespread dissatisfaction with a rate increase deferral plan negotiated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with Constellation officials. Ehrlich accepted the deal after lawmakers concluded the Assembly session without reaching a plan of their own.

With no obvious avenue for another proposal to emerge once the PSC approved that plan, talk of a special session had faded.

"The reason for that is there's no plan," Ehrlich said yesterday on WBAL-AM. "You can't just call a special session. At some point, you have to put up or shut up."

Legislative leaders said that a slim possibility of legislative action re-emerged this week after Baltimore Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. granted the city a May 30 hearing in its lawsuit to stop the rate deferral plan. He also ordered BGE to stop advertising the plan until the proceedings are complete.

The city is seeking a new PSC hearing with sworn witnesses, expert testimony, cross examination and full consideration of such issues as BGE profitability, executive compensation and the Constellation-FPL merger - all in hopes that greater disclosure will elicit a better deal for consumers.

Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the city's success in court has boosted his efforts to secure commitments from the majority of legislators necessary to force a special session.

He said he and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus are working on their own plans for legislation, which would include capping rates and preventing future rate shocks.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan also renewed his call for a special session yesterday, saying the lawsuit - which was filed at the direction of his opponent in the Democratic primary for governor, Mayor Martin O'Malley - gives the legislature time to act.

"The PSC is not going to do the right thing. We know that," Duncan said. "Whether they come back and hold another hearing, they still are going to give us 72 percent."

If the city's lawsuit is successful, the rate increase deferral plan would go back to the PSC for another hearing. But city officials and advocates said they believe the results would be different if the PSC is forced to consider a wider set of issues in its hearing.

"With full public disclosure ... we can get a better deal for ratepayers than the one they are being saddled with now, which in essence is, `It's 72 percent - like it or lump it,'" O'Malley said.

BGE's 1.2 million customers are slated to see their electric bills rise by an average of 72 percent this summer with the expiration of rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's 1999 deregulation of the industry.

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