No rest for Md. voters in 2006

Rate-relief hearing, early voting, PSC, governor's race on tap


Last week's one-day special session of the General Assembly wiped out any chance that Maryland politics would take a summer vacation this year.

The State House posturing and speechifying looks as if it will be no more than a prelude to the days to come.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a staunch opponent of the BGE rate-relief plan that lawmakers approved last week, will conduct a public hearing tomorrow during which he intends to spend up to five hours informing Marylanders about what he sees as the lesser-known and "very damaging" elements of the legislation.

That will be a warm-up to the governor's decision, due a day or two later, on whether to veto the measure. If he does (and he has given indications that he might), members of the Assembly say they would return to Annapolis immediately for an override vote.

About the same time, Assembly leaders must provide a list of nominees for the new Public Service Commission as mandated by the rate-relief bill. The current PSC members could sue to keep their jobs.

In the middle of all that, there's a deadline this week for the state Board of Elections to certify the first batch of signatures in Ehrlich's petition drive to block a new law that would allow polling places to open five days before Election Day this year. If the board certifies fewer than the preliminary threshold of about 17,000 signatures, supporters of the petition drive have said that they would sue to keep the effort alive.

During the next two weeks, Ehrlich must appoint a candidate for lieutenant governor to replace Michael S. Steele, who is running for U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the governor hasn't officially announced that he plans to run for re-election, something he needs to do before the filing deadline of July 3.

Old hands at Maryland politics say they can't recall a summer like it.

"I believe this is a summer of discontent," said former Judge Edgar P. Silver, who has been involved in Maryland politics for more than 50 years.

"I don't ever remember a gubernatorial election like this, a U.S. Senate race, a congressional seat at stake" in the 3rd District, Silver said. "It's an overabundance of activities on which people have to make decisions, and this is the time when they want to get away. ... This is the time they don't want to hear all this, but they will get it."

With the legislature out of town, Ehrlich plans to retake command of the political stage tomorrow with a rare public hearing before his decision on whether to veto the BGE rate-relief bill.

Ehrlich said it is a technique that Gov. William Donald Schaefer used once and Gov. Marvin Mandel employed once or twice, and he suggested that he will use his five hours to get his point of view across in a way that he didn't when the legislature was in session and holding its own hearing last week.

"I had two priorities here, one to give consumers the best deal and the other to really protect the grid, the reliability of electricity, and [the legislature] failed to do that," Ehrlich said Thursday on WBAL radio. "I'm going to have a public hearing here. We'll do it for many hours, and we'll go after all the provisions in the bill."

But many will seek to steal his spotlight. On the day that lawmakers met to vote on the BGE measure, protesters crowded in front of the State House - one wearing a chicken suit to mock the governor. The same groups say they'll be back tomorrow.

The BGE issue has been a point of contention for months in the gubernatorial race, but recently it has become a more central issue of the campaign.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat seeking to unseat Ehrlich, has run television ads highlighting his role in seeking rate relief. The city filed a lawsuit seeking a better rate-deferral plan than the one negotiated by the governor, and its court victory paved the way for the special session.

Just before the legislature's vote, Ehrlich recorded an automated telephone call that the Maryland Republican Party paid to send to households in swing districts across the Baltimore region.

In the message, Ehrlich urged listeners to contact their Democratic legislators to get them to oppose the bill. According to lawmakers, the call offered to connect listeners immediately to their legislators' offices. Lawmakers said the system hung up on the callers after about three minutes.

At the same time, Ehrlich recorded another "robo-call" on the other major issue that could consume the summer: early voting.

Democrats want to allow voters to cast ballots at polling places several days before the election as a way to boost turnout, but Ehrlich has decried the procedure as an open invitation to voter fraud.

A group backed by his campaign has been circulating petitions in an effort to force referendums on two early-voting measures.

The group, Marylanders for Fair Elections, turned in more than 20,000 signatures on each of the two petitions on May 31, about 3,000 more than the state constitution requires by that date.

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