Ehrlich takes fight public

Governor seeks hearing, hints veto of rates bill

June 16, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

Fuming about an electricity rate relief plan approved this week by the General Assembly, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged yesterday a "very public and very transparent" campaign to inform Maryland voters of what he believes are misguided elements of the legislation and hinted broadly that he might veto the measure.

Ehrlich said he will make a final decision after a public hearing that he and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele plan to conduct Monday or Tuesday, shortly before a constitutional deadline for acting on the measure.

But the governor's comments yesterday at a news conference and on WBAL-AM suggested that the hearing - which he referred to once as a "veto hearing" - would be more an opportunity for him to influence the public than for the public to influence him.

FOR THE RECORD - The footnotes for a Page 1A chart yesterday on electricity rate deferral plans incorrectly stated that credits from a proposed merger between Constellation Energy and FLP Inc. of Florida were included in the calculation of the plan negotiated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. In fact, the figures for all three of the plans assume no savings from the merger. If the merger were to be completed, savings for consumers would increase under the Ehrlich and General Assembly plans.
The Sun regrets the error.

"Clearly, I don't like what they've done," Ehrlich said on WBAL radio. "It's overreaching just to get by. This is not leadership. It's politics. People deserve better than this."

Ehrlich has used the bully pulpit before to swing people to his side on major issues - most notably, he traveled the state in 2004 to generate support for his medical malpractice reform efforts - but never before has he faced such high stakes.

Just five months before Maryland's first Republican governor in a generation is set to go before the voters again, he is setting out to persuade BGE's more than 1.2 million residential customers to side with him against a rate plan that lawmakers of both parties say provides crucial protections for consumers while preserving the financial integrity of BGE.

The utility company has said that it supports the measure passed by the legislature.

Top Democrats are criticizing the governor for waging a campaign against the legislation after the Assembly passed it, rather than working to improve it during the one-day special session that ended early yesterday.

The governor agreed to the need for a special session and signed an executive order calling lawmakers back to Annapolis to deal with the BGE rate issue. But neither the governor nor his staff took part in negotiations on the final bill to blunt the impact of an average 72 percent increase scheduled for July 1, caused by the expiration of rate caps instituted as part of a deregulation of the utility industry in 1999.

"They have no plan, and what they are trying to do is a big disservice to a confused BGE customer," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat who was a key figure in passing the General Assembly's plan. Ehrlich "has to be held accountable for his lack of planning and his bully politics."

The Assembly passed its rate-relief plan with more than enough support to override a veto, which would require 60 percent of the vote in both chambers.

"The bill was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and enough support to override the governor's veto," said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor who filed a lawsuit that helped lead to the special session. "So, whether he decides to veto it or not or sign it or not is pretty irrelevant."

The legislature's plan, passed in the early morning hours yesterday, trims the BGE rate increase to 15 percent. Rates would hold steady for 11 months, and then consumers could choose either to pay market rates or enroll in a deferral plan for another seven months.

Customers would be charged an average monthly fee of $2.19 for 10 years to repay BGE.

The measure also fires the members of the Ehrlich-controlled state Public Service Commission and replaces them with a group chosen by the governor from lists of names provided by the legislature. The measure changes how Maryland utilities buy electricity and includes provisions to help customers of the state's other power companies.

Ehrlich gave a preview yesterday of the issues he will raise in his "fairly unprecedented" public hearing, which he said could go on for "six, seven, eight, nine, 10 hours."

He heaped criticism on several provisions he said were added to the Assembly bill at the last minute by Democrats, including a number of measures to make it more difficult for Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler to reinstate a lawsuit to stop the legislature from firing him and the other commissioners.

Lawmakers had passed a bill that would have enabled the firing of Schisler and PSC members earlier in the year, but the governor vetoed it.

Ehrlich said, for example, that it was outrageous that the legislature included a provision requiring that any challenge to the rate plan be filed in Baltimore Circuit Court. When a similar PSC reconstitution bill was under consideration in April, Schisler filed suit in his hometown courthouse in Talbot County.

"To do this really raises unfair questions about that court," Ehrlich said, hinting that Democratic legislators were maligning Baltimore judges by assuming that they would be inclined to rule in the Assembly's favor.

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