Friendly atmosphere for Duncan, O'Malley as rate issue debated

Politics

June 14, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE AND BRADLEY OLSON | JOHN FRITZE AND BRADLEY OLSON,SUN REPORTERS

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sat quietly, hands folded, in the packed, wood-paneled hearing room that became the focus of the state's battle over electric rates yesterday and, for a brief moment, the epicenter of its most pressing political issue.

Sitting just to the left, with an entourage of about a half-dozen people, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan waited patiently to speak, as lawmakers were briefed on the minutiae of the rate deferral plan, going line by line through its nearly 60 pages.

Despite weeks of political wrangling over the issue - which is sure to play a role in this year's gubernatorial election - the two Democratic candidates calmly took the microphone, one after the other, to express their support for the plan to blunt the impact of a looming 72 percent BGE electric rate increase, crafted in part because of their campaigns.

"I urge you to pass this bill and to replace the Public Service Commission and set a rate cap," O'Malley said in his remarks to the Senate Finance and House Economic Matters committees. "The two goals of this bill are ... to ensure that the rates paid are fair and reasonable for consumers and, secondly, to make sure that we have a healthy utility."

The political undertones of yesterday's hearing were clear - some in the audience giggled when portions of the bill that are particularly punitive to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were read aloud - but after months of debate over the issue, Annapolis was a friendly place, at least for the Democratic candidates for governor.

"I urge you once again, as you did with the medical malpractice crisis, to work together to craft a short-term solution that will relieve the fears of Marylanders and build a foundation for a long-term solution to this issue," Duncan told lawmakers yesterday.

Both candidates agreed to support the General Assembly's most recent plan, which would cap the electric rate increase at 15 percent for 11 months beginning July 1, and replace the current PSC members. A new regulatory agency would decide on future rate increases.

The hearing, which also drew Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens and Howard County Executive James N. Robey, all Democrats, was a rare meeting of the state's political elite - especially O'Malley and Duncan, who seldom appear together in an increasingly rancorous campaign.

For O'Malley, yesterday was particularly rewarding as lawmakers congratulated his administration for its successful lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court to block the rate increases - which some have called the impetus for bringing the General Assembly together.

"I want to thank you for filing the lawsuit," Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's County Democrat, told O'Malley shortly after his testimony. "It opened the doors that the General Assembly couldn't open."

It was a refrain O'Malley heard throughout the day on the streets around the capital. As he walked from the hearing room in the Legislative Services Building to a private meeting in the State House with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, the mayor was stopped by lawmakers who praised the city's action.

The city argued in its lawsuit that the PSC followed a flawed procedure when it approved a deferral plan negotiated by Ehrlich because it did not consider all the relevant facts that led to the proposed increase. After the city won, the PSC adopted a less generous deferral plan that angered Democratic members of the General Assembly.

At an impromptu news conference just outside the hearing room, reporters asked the mayor to respond to praise about the effect of the city's lawsuit.

"I'm glad that we stood up for the working people and the consumers of our state," O'Malley said. "I'm glad the city of Baltimore stood up, and I'm really delighted that the special session has been called by the General Assembly."

Duncan, too, was able to claim a victory, as his campaign had consistently called for a special session. On his way to the hearing from his office on State Circle - located one floor below the spacious offices of Constellation Energy Group, BGE's corporate parent - Duncan stopped to chat with people who told him lawmakers never should have gone home.

"I've been calling for them to come into special session ever since the session ended. And I'm glad they've finally done that," Duncan said after the hearing. "It's one of the issues that people care deeply about."

john.fritze@baltsun.com bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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