What goes around

June 07, 2006

Maryland doesn't need to have a race for governor. It's got a utility rate case that's infused with quite enough politics already, thank you. Back when state legislators fouled up electricity deregulation with a six-year rate cap that ended with a sudden transition to market rates this year, did it occur to anyone that 2006 would be an election year? What goes around, comes around.

Even so, no one could have predicted this disaster: a very important, very complex, once-in-a-lifetime utility rate case thoroughly clouded by the nasty, pingpong politics of the brewing governor's race. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to his potential Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley: It's your fault! Mayor O'Malley to Governor Ehrlich: No, it's your fault! Meanwhile, Baltimore Gas and Electric's 1.1 million households are in limbo, not even knowing their rates come July 1.

Now there will be an 11th-hour special session of the legislature to come up with a politically acceptable rate-relief plan. Attention consumers: It likely won't enable you to ultimately avoid a 72 percent hike in your electricity rates, but it may provide a gentler transition to those bigger bills - or at least gentler than the credit-card plan that the Public Service Commission summarily reverted to last Friday, one that calls for initial 21 percent increases and interest payments on any deferred bills.

If the special session is the last shot at straightening out this mess before deregulation, then here's what legislators must do:

First and foremost, end the terms of all five PSC commissioners immediately, appointing a new commission - with additional funds for the best outside experts on utility rates and mergers to contend with the consultants weighing in on the side of BGE's parent, Constellation Energy, as it moves to market rates and seeks a merger with a Florida utility. Unfortunately, this is needed because Governor Ehrlich thoroughly polluted the commission and its staff with political appointees who have repeatedly proved unwilling to do anything but rubber-stamp Constellation's plans.

On this score, the most recent - and, we hope, last - straw was the PSC's reversion Friday to the worst rate-relief plan of all, a move much more purely aimed at political retaliation against Mayor O'Malley than serving Marylanders. In doing that, the PSC didn't even bother to hold a proper meeting as a group, according to the sole dissenter on the commission, possibly violating the state open meetings law. PSC spokeswoman Christine E. Nizer yesterday denied this, saying a proper meeting was held.

Second, approve a new rate-relief plan that will be temporarily in place until the reconstituted PSC and its outside experts can properly and completely review both the rate increase and proposed merger - a plan that would initially provide at least as good a deal for consumers as the legislature's earlier proposal, a 15 percent initial increase with no interest charges. The legislature failed to enact this plan. Again, what goes around, comes around.

Between the governor and legislature, there is a mountain of blame to go around here. Stop the politics long enough to fix this.

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