Rate bill passes

Veto-proof votes in House, Senate enact limit on BGE increases


A plan to hold this summer's BGE electricity rate increase to 15 percent and fire the Public Service Commission passed the General Assembly early this morning with veto-proof majorities in both chambers, a major turn in a saga that has dominated Maryland politics for months and brought anxiety and confusion to BGE's 1.2 million residential customers.

"It's the best proposal that's been on the table thus far," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "It's taken a lot of hard work. It's like the Age of Aquarius. On this day everything came together."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. got none of the amendments he said he would need to persuade him to sign the bill. But the legislation passed the House and Senate with more than enough votes to override a potential gubernatorial veto, and legislative leaders said they will reconvene to override if necessary.

FOR THE RECORD - A roll call published in some editions yesterday incorrectly listed how two lawmakers voted on the General Assembly's bill to delay full implementation of a BGE rate increase. Sen. John J. Hafer, a Republican from Allegany County, and Del. Tony McConkey, a Republican from Anne Arundel County, both voted against the legislation.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The Senate vote came at about 9 p.m. on the first and only day of a special session called to address the electricity crisis; the House vote came after 12:30 a.m. today.

The news in March that BGE electric bills would go up 72 percent with the July 1 expiration of six-year rate caps led to an outcry from consumers and frantic efforts by lawmakers to avert a potential election-year anti-incumbent movement.

Rates are rising as part of an energy deregulation plan passed by the General Assembly in 1999, now being fully implemented at a time of rising energy costs and worldwide market instability.

Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for BGE parent company Constellation Energy Group, said the utility doesn't agree with all aspects of the bill, but he said it is pleased to see some finality to the issue for customers.

"We've said from the start that our top priority was a plan that helped BGE's residential customers manage the July 1 adjustment to market prices, while at the same time assuring the financial strength and viability of BGE," Gould said. "This bill appears to meet both objectives."

The legislature wrapped up its special session in one tiring day, accomplishing what it failed to do during the annual 90-day legislative session that ended this spring. Each day the legislature spends in Annapolis costs taxpayers about $45,000, state officials say.

Ehrlich made no public comments after the Senate vote, but earlier in the evening he said he didn't like the direction it was going. On Tuesday, he had complained that the bill would be damaging to BGE and its corporate parent, Constellation Energy Group, but yesterday he said the legislature was giving too much to the company.

"It's fascinating because the amendments appear all to be going Constellation's way against consumers, and that's obviously of interest to us and not a positive sign," Ehrlich said.

Republican legislators met with Ehrlich for an hour yesterday afternoon to craft amendments the governor said he hoped would both aid consumers and help ensure the success of the pending merger between Constellation and Florida-based FPL Group Inc.

Without them, he said, he wouldn't hesitate to veto the legislature's efforts to help BGE customers deal with the pending increase

"You've got that right," Ehrlich said. "If, on the other hand, they improve the bill, if they make it more consumer-friendly, if they depoliticize it, if they protect the merger, I'll sign it."

None of the Republicans' amendments passed the Senate. The governor would have six working days - not counting Sunday - to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

The proposal that prompted the most debate was an amendment to preserve the Public Service Commission. The commissioners have been pummeled by Democrats and some Republicans for not acting sooner to thwart the rate increase.

A Baltimore circuit judge ruled last month that they failed in their duty to look out for consumers, and the state Open Meetings Compliance Board said they had held an illegal closed meeting.

The agency has also been criticized for being too cozy with utility company executives, a claim bolstered by e-mails showing that commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler discussed strategy with industry lobbyists and planning a hunting trip and other social outings with a utility company official.

Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, a Somerset County Republican, argued that although "some of the [PSC's] behavior was inappropriate" the entire commission should not be punished. He blamed the previous members of the Public Service Commission, individuals who sat on the board in 1999 when the rate plan was signed, for the 72 percent rate increase.

"My problem is when we blow up a whole commission it destabilizes it," Stoltzfus said.

Some Republicans said dismissing the PSC sets a bad precedent. "It's not appropriate to fire people because we disagree with their decision," said Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

Others asserted that the commissioners had shown they had forgotten their main mission - to advocate for consumers.

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