Black Caucus unveils plan for electric rates

Group calls for special session

proposal includes 12 percent cap on increases, halt of utility merger


Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus unveiled yesterday a six-point plan to deal with rising electricity rates and demanded that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. call a special session of the General Assembly to enact the reforms by June 15.

If the governor declines, caucus members said they will seek a special session by circulating a petition that would need the signatures of a majority of the Assembly's 188 members.

Their plan calls for instituting rate caps to allow an increase of about 12 percent in electric bills; holding up the pending merger between BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group, and a Florida utility; forcing Constellation to sell energy to Maryland customers at a discount; firing the members of the Public Service Commission; and other measures.

"The pressure is on," said Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat and incoming chairwoman of the 42-member caucus, whose members represent 27 percent of the state's population. "We need to focus ... and get it done."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he is polling legislators about when they would be available for a session and what proposals they would be willing to support.

"I think we're heading in the direction of a special session," Miller said. "Things are coming together."

BGE residential electric bills are due to rise by 72 percent with the July 1 expiration of rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's 1999 deregulation of the industry. Legislators failed to enact a rate relief plan during the regular General Assembly session this spring, and Ehrlich stepped in to negotiate a deal with Constellation.

Last month, the governor announced a rate increase deferral plan, but yesterday Black Caucus members said it wasn't enough, echoing what many consumers and other legislative leaders have said in recent weeks.

"People in every community meeting I go to want to talk about us returning to session because they know these increases are unfair and they look to us who represent them to do something about it," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said the governor is willing to look at the caucus' proposals and would call a session if they are "credible recommendations."

"Having a special session just to be doing something is not particularly worthwhile," Fawell said.

Constellation spokesman Robert L. Gould said the company had not seen the proposal and could not comment on it.

Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch have been wary of calling a session without the governor's cooperation, but Del. Curtis S. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who has been heading up the petition drive, said he has commitments from more than half the lawmakers needed to force legislators back to Annapolis no matter what the leaders do.

Anderson said getting the necessary signatures - a majority of lawmakers, or 71 in the House and 24 in the Senate - would be easy.

Anderson said he and other legislators have vetted their plan with legislative analysts, utility regulation experts from Maryland and elsewhere, and attorneys. He said elements of the proposal could lead to a lawsuit from BGE, but he said he believes the balance of it would be upheld.

Miller said he is concerned about whether all of the caucus' goals could be upheld in court. Furthermore, he said, if the legislature comes in without Ehrlich's cooperation, a consensus between the two chambers would have to be solid enough to override a veto.

Miller and Busch took a tentative step toward a special session a week ago when they requested information from BGE and Constellation on executive pay, corporate profitability and whether much of the electricity BGE bought at auction is being produced by Constellation. They asked for the company's responses by the end of the month.

Jones said she expects that a special session could be as short as two days or as long as two weeks. Caucus members said there is tremendous public pressure for lawmakers to return to Annapolis in time to resolve the issue before the rates go up on July 1.

"As I have been going around the state from community to community, wanting to talk about health care, wanting to talk about job creation, wanting to talk about the environment, that's not what Marylanders want to talk about," said Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat and candidate for lieutenant governor on Mayor Martin O'Malley's ticket.

"They want to talk about electric rates," Brown said. "It's a statewide problem, and we're in crisis."

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