O'Malley looks for help on BGE suit

Other local leaders show some reluctance

May 19, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Fresh off a preliminary legal victory, Mayor Martin O'Malley is trying to enlist other local government leaders to join his lawsuit against the state Public Service Commission over electricity rates set to rise 72 percent this summer.

But while local leaders say they share concern over a PSC-approved deferral plan that seeks to blunt the impact of the cost spike, the mayor has found only limited success in getting others to join his legal battle.

The city of Annapolis is considering joining Baltimore in its lawsuit, a move that Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said would help show the breadth of dissatisfaction with the pending BGE rate increase. But officials in the counties that surround the city have held off, saying they don't have the time or the legal standing to get involved.

Baltimore officials are asking a city Circuit Court judge to order the PSC to consider a wider range of issues before approving the deferral plan - including executive compensation, company profits and a pending merger between BGE's parent company and a Florida utility - in hopes of getting a better deal for consumers.

This month, a judge allowed the case to proceed and ordered BGE to stop advertising the deferral plan.

"I think there's strength in numbers," said Moyer, a Democrat. "The more we can get at the answers and really look at what deregulation has done, the better off all of us will be in making decisions for the future."

O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is hopeful that a coalition would strengthen his efforts against the deferral plan negotiated by the governor.

"This is an unprecedented event to have the Public Service Commission fail as badly as they did and saddle us with the largest rate increase in the history of the Public Service Commission and not even have proper hearings," O'Malley said. "I think you may see other counties joining this suit as well."

BGE electric bills are due to rise 72 percent after the July 1 expiration of rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's 1999 electricity deregulation plan.

After the legislature failed to pass a deferral plan in the final minutes of this year's General Assembly session, Ehrlich negotiated a new deal with BGE.

Under the plan, customers who choose to participate can reduce their July 1 increase to 19.4 percent. But beginning in June 2007, they would pay more than they would have otherwise for two years.

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat running for state comptroller, said O'Malley called to ask her to participate in the suit.

Owens said she would consider filing a friend-of-the-court brief if the case lands in an appellate court, but so long as it remains in city Circuit Court, she said Anne Arundel won't take part.

But Owens said she agrees with the city's position that the PSC's hearing was inadequate.

"Really, it's an insult to the citizens," she said.

O'Malley also spoke with Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. about joining the suit, but the county has declined.

Howard County Solicitor Barbara Cook said she evaluated the viability of joining the suit but determined that as a practical matter it wouldn't be possible - in part because briefs are due today.

Constellation Energy Group spokesman Robert L. Gould said the rate increase is the result of a global energy crisis, and that O'Malley is trying to score political points rather than to help consumers.

"If the O'Malley administration truly cared about BGE customers, it would stop the reckless rhetoric that is only frustrating an already frustrated customer base," Gould said. "The voters will see through it for what it really is. It's an effort simply to pave a path to the governor's mansion."andy.green@baltsun.com

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