Political victory is at stake

Gubernatorial hopefuls look to special session on BGE's rate increase

June 07, 2006|By DOUG DONOVAN | DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTER

All of the candidates for governor say they want the General Assembly to craft a winning plan to ease in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s pending rate increase.

But who will emerge from the state legislature's expected special session next week as the political winner will depend on what resolution - if any - is reached.

BGE electric rates are set to go up 72 percent July 1 with the expiration of rate caps instituted in 1999 as part of Maryland's energy industry deregulation. The state legislature is expected to reconvene to fashion a plan to soften the blow of the increase.

By virtue of incumbency, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. could bear the brunt of political anger among BGE's more than 1 million ratepayers - no matter how much their bills go up next month, said James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Others say Ehrlich has done an effective job reminding voters that it was the Democrat-controlled legislature - including the running mate of one of his Democratic rivals, Mayor Martin O'Malley - that approved the rate increase in 1999.

"If I could draw a picture of this, it would be of the General Assembly, the governor and the mayor all pointing fingers at someone else," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "There are almost no political losers here, and that's what makes the political theater so great."

Norris added that Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan could benefit from the high-profile posturing of Ehrlich and O'Malley. "He's above the fray, he's the adult," Norris said.

However, Gimpel said that Duncan, whose Montgomery constituents mostly get energy from a Washington-area utility, has not been as engaged in the debate as he should be.

Still, others say O'Malley has staked out an envious political position by orchestrating Baltimore's lawsuit against the Ehrlich-appointed Public Service Commission, which drafted details of the steep rate increase.

Last week, a judge ruled in the city's favor and told the PSC to hold a new hearing and collect more evidence on the rate increase. O'Malley's campaign followed the legal victory with commercials depicting the mayor as a working-family's champion and Ehrlich as the governor for special interests.

"It was great politics," Norris said. "Even if he hadn't won, he could still say he stood up."

But Ehrlich turned the lawsuit against O'Malley after the PSC responded to the legal action by implementing a relief plan that will be more costly to ratepayers, unless the General Assembly and governor come up with a new plan.

Ehrlich officials have labeled O'Malley's moves as political posturing, especially his calls for the disbanding of the PSC. They say that rate increases are inevitable, and that the debate should center on devising a plan.

"The governor's overriding goal is to recapture the benefits lost as a result of Baltimore city's short-sighted lawsuit," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "Lawsuits and pointing fingers has done nothing to keep electricity affordable. Thoughtful bipartisan solutions will keep it affordable."

Duncan spokesman David Weaver said the county executive was the first to call for a special session after the General Assembly failed to reach a relief plan before adjourning in April.

"O'Malley referred to the idea as `silly,'" Weaver said.

Norris and Gimpel agreed that in a largely Democratic state, Ehrlich has the most to lose by appearing to be on the energy industry's side.

"Many Maryland voters are sympathetic to regulation and government intervention," Gimpel said. "Free market arguments, unfortunately for the Republicans, have not been especially popular in Maryland."

Gimpel said the legislature could do all the candidates a favor and fashion a delay in a rate increase until after the elections.

"As long as the rate increase doesn't occur before the election, people will be satisfied and then turn to other issues," he said. "If the hike does come, the voters will look for someone to blame. Who are they going to blame?"

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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