Lost credibility

June 04, 2006

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch demanded certain information from Constellation Energy Group about pending Baltimore-area electricity-rate hikes and the company's merger with a Florida utility. They got a response last week, 29 pages of single-spaced, complex explanations that they immediately asked the state Department of Fiscal Services to analyze.

We don't blame them for feeling overwhelmed. Constellation's response seems to make an airtight case that:

Its executives aren't receiving inordinate benefits from the proposed merger.

The coming 72 percent jump in electricity bills results from proper bidding and does not mean Constellation would make outsized profits in providing electric power to its subsidiary, Baltimore Gas and Electric.

But with all due respect to legislative leaders or state fiscal service analysts, truly evaluating those claims is a job for very well-versed specialists. And here's the rub: The state of Maryland has an entire agency long dedicated to just that kind of heavy lifting. It's called the Public Service Commission. It's supposed to serve the public interest in these very matters.

Of course, long before all this hit the news, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gutted the PSC, using a police escort to show certain experienced staffers the door and replacing four of five commissioners with industry pals. The PSC was privy earlier to some of the Constellation information released last week, but it certainly didn't probe any of it in its single brief hearing, and it wouldn't touch the issue of the rates in relation to the proposed merger.

Now there's a true mess brewing. The PSC has been ordered by a Baltimore judge to rehear the rate case and may end up going with a plan it approved in March, the worst one of all. In any case, the PSC has lost so much credibility that it's hard to conceive of it crafting any solution that Marylanders accept as warranted and fair. Increasingly frustrated state legislative leaders may yet hold a special session to pressure Constellation once more. Moreover, electric rates and the proposed merger have become central to the politics of the gubernatorial race.

Constellation, finally, has made public more detailed information about the rate hikes and merger. If you find it hard to understand, don't know what to think or whom to believe, thank a weakened PSC.

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