Coming election gets jolt from 72 percent charge

May 14, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Early reports from the door-to-door campaign front are full of ominous stories.

The voters are beyond angry. And they are alarmingly well-informed.

They know their electricity rates are about to jump 72 percent. They know that figure means an average annual increase of $743.

The candidate listens politely. He or she may wish to introduce himself or herself. He or she may wish to hand over the graphically pleasing and alarmingly expensive four-color brochure.

But the voters want to talk rates.

"They are around the bend on the increases," says a chastened candidate running in Prince George's County.

He was impressed, if not shaken, by the depth of knowledge he encountered.

"They know what stranded costs are," he said, referring to the millions BGE customers paid Constellation Energy Group to take over the utility's power plants in the 1999 deregulation settlement. They know, many of them, that the value of these plants rose.

"They know about the e-mails," he said, referring to friendly exchanges between the chairman of the Public Service Commission and officials of the power industry.

They know about a hunting trip taken by one of the regulators with officials of the power industry.

They know about Constellation CEO Mayo A. Shattuck III's reported $40 million bonus, he said, "and they know it goes out the window if the merger with Florida Power and Light doesn't go through."

(To get some real relief, the General Assembly tried to block the deal. It all turned to ashes on the last night of the Assembly session.)

They remember that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said the 72 percent increase would not stand. It stood.

Many voters know that the plan to ease the crunch boils down to a credit plan that allows the consumer to pay now or pay later but pay in full eventually.

A confluence of factors makes the BGE rate increase Issue One in this election. Wages have been stagnant. Gasoline costs $3 a gallon, give or take. The newspapers are full of stories about record profits for the oil companies and their executives.

Legislative record-keepers are fielding phone calls from campaigners anxious to know how their opponents voted on deregulation of the energy industry in 1999.

Mr. Ehrlich's would-be Democratic opponents - Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan - are following an all-BGE-all-the-time approach to the election.

Mr. O'Malley went to court last week to show his deep concern for the ratepayers. He's suing over alleged procedural failures. Mr. Duncan has been calling loudly for re-regulation. Mr. Ehrlich says he made a good bargain for the ratepayers. He wouldn't want to see the poll numbers on that issue.

Mr. Duncan and Mr. O'Malley are eager to keep the issue alive. And they have plenty of helpers.

A state court, for example, ordered BGE last week to stop reporting that a deal had been made because the court could undo the deal. In a related matter, a state agency found that the PSC had violated the open-meetings law by not announcing a briefing with Ehrlich administration officials and not opening it to the public.

BGE may be the best helper of all. It is scheduled to begin shipping the big new bills this summer. They will arrive as a kind of countdown, first to the primaries and then to the General Election.

A Baltimore-area candidate confronts what must be a common concern. He knows one of his opponents voted against deregulation in 1999. He, on the other hand, voted for it. He finds himself whistling past the political graveyard.

"People may get angry at you for voting for something they oppose. But if they know you thought about it, considered your position and voted your conscience, they will still vote for you," he said.

Not only that, he said, but it's not likely that any one vote can bring you to grief. Abortion and gun control have had that effect.

But if there's a single issue with that kind of boot-'em-out power, this may be the one.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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