Ehrlich to hear Md. on rate bill

5-hour hearing today

Democrats urge the governor to sign or veto measure quickly

June 20, 2006|By ANDREW A. GREEN AND JOHN FRITZE | ANDREW A. GREEN AND JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTERS

Arguing that the BGE rate-relief plan approved by the General Assembly last week will bring finality to the state's most pressing consumer issue, Democrats called on the governor yesterday to either sign the legislation or veto it now.

But that decision, due later this week, will come after a five-hour public hearing that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will conduct today on the Assembly's plan to defer part of the average 72 percent increase. Ehrlich aides said it will give the governor the chance to hear from people whose voices have been absent from the debate.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the issue is so important that the governor needs to hear from all sides before making his decision. Ehrlich has not said whether he would veto it, but he has been sharply critical of the measure.

"This is an opportunity for both sides to voice their support or concerns about a legislative plan that carries enormous consequences for more than a million Marylanders," Fawell said.

Eighteen Republicans joined nearly every Democrat in the General Assembly to give the bill veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The Assembly recessed the brief special session it convened last week and could quickly return for an override vote.

BGE rates are going up this summer because rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's deregulation of the electricity industry in 1999 expire July 1.

Democrats called the governor's hearing a political show that would serve only to delay a final resolution of the rates crisis.

"I am urging the governor to sign the bill or veto the bill, but stop blocking progress," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is running for governor, said yesterday at a City Hall news conference. "Continuing this sort of political theater and this instability does nothing for consumers; it does nothing to make the utility healthy."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat running for governor, also called for swift action. He sent a letter to Ehrlich yesterday urging him to sign the measure.

"Hearings on the current bill are pure showmanship, while real hearings on a long-term energy strategy would show true leadership," Duncan wrote in the letter, released by his campaign. "We need an energy policy that provides a reliable and affordable supply of electricity ... and guarantees that consumers are protected first."

The rate-relief measure passed last week by the Assembly caps the increase at 15 percent for 11 months. After that, customers could go to market rates or opt for an as-yet-undeveloped transition plan.

To make up for the deferred payments, residential consumers would be charged a monthly fee for 10 years, on average about $2.19 after givebacks from BGE parent Constellation Energy Group. A customer with an average monthly electric bill of $83 would save about $520 over 11 months but would be required to pay back about half that total over 10 years.

The measure contains other provisions to which Ehrlich has objected, notably the replacement of the state Public Service Commission, which is controlled by his appointees.

Ehrlich is requiring that those who want to speak at the hearing sign up in advance and has posted a list of topics he wants to focus on, leading Democrats to question whether his aides will screen who gets to address the governor and what they will say.

An online sign-up closed at 3 p.m. yesterday, but Ehrlich policy director Alan Friedman said the administration would try to accommodate those who missed the deadline.

"The governor is willing to hear from everybody," Friedman said.

He said the hearing will be divided into three sections. First, a group of analysts will go over details of the rate bill. Friedman said they were not selected by the Ehrlich administration and are not predominantly on one side or the other. Many have not taken a stand on whether the bill should be vetoed, Friedman said.

After that, the governor will hear from opponents of the bill and finally from proponents. Those waiting to testify will not be allowed in the ceremonial reception room where the meeting is to be held but will be given a place to wait elsewhere in the Capitol. Friedman said the administration will try to arrange a live video feed of the proceedings for those in the waiting room.

The sign-up form, which is available at www.maryland.gov, asks those who want to testify for their name, address, e-mail address and telephone number. It asks whether the person signing up represents an organization or has testified on the rates issue before. People who have not testified before will be given preference, Friedman said.

Those who sign up must indicate whether they support or oppose the bill and can include comments about the measure.

Sign-up is also available by phone at 410-974-3336.

Fawell said yesterday that he could not provide a number for how many people had signed up, but he said responses were running about even from those who support the measure and those who oppose it.

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