A repair job by legislative mechanics working under pressure

June 18, 2006|By C. FRASER SMITH

Last week's special legislative session on utility rates? They're saying it was all about politics.

I should hope so. Politics is problem-solving. There was a problem the General Assembly created - in good faith, I would argue, hoping to achieve that all-American dynamic called competition. Didn't happen. Seriously flawed legislation.

So the Assembly met to correct its mistake. This is something people can do in our country, something that involves discussing and negotiating as opposed to assassination and improvised explosive devices.

A lobbyist and former legislator, standing without fear of guerrilla attack on the State House steps, observed that lawmakers wouldn't be meeting on an emergency basis if its members hadn't been walking around, knocking on doors and getting an earful about the 72 percent increase in utility bills.

Imagine that. It's called democracy. The candidate walks around knocking on doors talking to the voters. The voters talk back. Some of them say nothing about utility rates. We can assume they are able to manage the higher costs. Others throw the candidate up against the wall. They're angry and distressed. Have you read that many Americans are living on the verge of personal bankruptcy, haven't had much in the way of wage increases in years?

Pressure builds. Did I mention it's an election year? There's talk of a special legislative session to address several problems.

It's called accountability and representative government. If, in the process of door-knocking and talk in the parlor, candidates learn of distress, they may wish to respond -particularly when they know they are, in part, responsible.

They want to act - election year or not. Call me naive, but we are talking about values that motivate many if not most of the General Assembly's 188 members. It's important for people so motivated to stay in public life, to develop expertise and to get re-elected.

People such as Del. Pauline H. Menes of Prince George's County. She's been in the Assembly for 10 terms - 40 years including this one, which she says will be her last. The special session, she says, was essential this year.

"It's responding to what citizens of our state feel was left undone. And that is the way we see it. It will not be completely fixed with the special session. But at least we will deal with the major problems: the extraordinary increase in costs," she said.

Because legislators believed the Public Service Commission had ill served the public, the Assembly fired its members and established a new appointing system in which lawmakers have the appointing power. Commissioners will be chosen by legislators along with governors, unless Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoes the entire enterprise and the Assembly fails to override his apparent opposition.

"We're really leaving most of the heavy lifting to a newly constituted Public Service Commission," Ms. Menes said. "And that's how it should be. They'll have all the facts and know the right and wrong of all the different ways of dealing with these companies - whereas we have very few of the facts other than what they've done is unacceptable."

Ms. Menes said the special lawmaking rendezvous had an educational value as well - if people take advantage of it. The new 15 percent utility rate increase (instead of the 72 percent increase allowed by the PSC) is in effect for 11 months - time for Marylanders to learn they must adjust to a new reality.

"I'm not sure the public understands that increased prices are inevitable," she said. "They see it at the gas pump and they can't complain to anyone."

They can complain to the legislature, and the legislature responded in an unprecedented way, firing the regulators who they thought were incompetent and blatantly biased toward the utilities.

Governor Ehrlich, who had been outspoken in his pro-business orientation, says the Assembly gave away too much to the energy guys, didn't attend adequately to the needs of the consumers. His plan was a better deal, he insists.

Was that spin? Or whiplash? The pro-business governor offering himself suddenly as pro-consumer? Was it politics?

The voters will decide.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Sunday. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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