Forces muster for rate hearing

Backers of governor, legislature vow to pack Tuesday showdown

June 17, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN AND KELLY BREWINGTON | ANDREW A. GREEN AND KELLY BREWINGTON,SUN REPORTERS

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. laid out details yesterday for the hearing he has called to discuss a new General Assembly electricity rate-relief plan, an event shaping up as an unusually public showdown between backers of the governor and those who support the legislative measure.

Proponents of the bill that would blunt the impact of a 72 percent rate increase say they are prepared to pack the proceedings with people angry at the governor for opposing the deal.

But the governor has said he intends to use the hearing - scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday in an ornate State House meeting room adjacent to his office - to highlight what he sees as the inappropriate elements of the plan.

Ehrlich has criticized the bill as overreaching by the legislature, in large part because it replaces the Public Service Commission, made up of gubernatorial appointees, with members pre-selected by the Assembly.

For the governor, the hearing provides a high-profile opportunity to express his opposition to the legislation passed by Democrats in a high-drama special session this week - letting him gather evidence that he could use to buttress his arguments if he decides to veto the legislation.

But top lawmakers accuse the governor of engaging in needless political theater, and they say the relief plan will become law whether Ehrlich approves or not. The measure passed with more than enough votes to override a veto.

"As far as he and his administration are concerned, this matter has sunk to politics, and there's very little policy coming from them," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "All [the public hearing] does is give him a bully pulpit. It gets everybody there, all the media and the television cameras, to concentrate on him and his talking points."

Confident that the law will take effect, top Democrats began yesterday to carry out one of the major provisions of the legislation by contacting candidates for a new Public Service Commission.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued an opinion yesterday saying the measure calling for the replacement of commissioners is constitutionally valid, countering a concern expressed by the governor and others.

Deregulation effect

BGE electricity rates have dominated the news in Central Maryland since the utility announced in March that its rates would go up 72 percent this summer. The sudden jump comes with the expiration of rate caps instituted as part of the state's 1999 electricity deregulation plan.

Consumers will be assessed a monthly fee for 10 years to make up for the deferred payments. The fee would average $2.19 a month but would vary depending on the size of a customer's bill. Consumers who move out of the BGE service area would not be assessed a final charge; instead, the fee would stay with the house.

Community and labor groups - as well as Ehrlich's political opponents - are planning to cram the hearing with supporters of the measure and ring the State House with protesters to urge him to sign the bill, which cuts the July 1 rate increase from 72 percent to 15 percent.

"Why does he need a public hearing ... unless he's trying to just put together this facade or phony hearing just to help build up his ego and his public image?" said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., executive director of the local council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We're going to make sure he doesn't go unchallenged."

The governor has said he and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will attend the five-hour public hearing, which will be held after the Tuesday funeral of longtime state Del. John S. Arnick, where Ehrlich is scheduled to speak. Those who want to address the hearing will have to sign up online beforehand, and equal time will be given to proponents and opponents of the bill, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.

The sign-up is available at www.maryland.gov.

The ceremonial State House reception room, lined with portraits of former governors, has a capacity of about 100 people, but Fawell said only groups of about 10 will be brought in at any time.

Proponents of the bill say they will make sure far more people than that show up at the hearing.

"You mean the hearing where you have to pre-register online and give a blood sample and everything to get in?" said Derrick Jessup, head organizer for the Baltimore chapter of ACORN. "We're definitely going to pack a bus and take everybody down there."

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said there will be no lack of people at the State House to support the governor Tuesday.

"All I can tell you is we're hearing from people that do not like this bill, Republicans and Democrats, and we hope they'll show up and voice their opposition to the legislature's bill."

A waste of time

Both of the governor's prospective Democratic opponents, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the hearing is waste of time.

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