Rates veto likely to fall

Assembly leaders claim enough votes to sustain BGE bill


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed the legislature's BGE rate deferral plan yesterday, setting up a likely override in the General Assembly today.

In a message to top lawmakers, Ehrlich said he believes rate relief is necessary but wants legislators to return to Annapolis and craft a new plan.

He offered no detailed proposal and suggested little room for compromise on one of the General Assembly's key goals: the replacement of the governor-appointed Public Service Commission.

"We can work together to craft a more balanced, pro-consumer solution," Ehrlich said in a written veto message. "I request the members [of the legislature] return to work immediately on an alternative solution that will prove more consumer friendly."

Ehrlich's decision restores the air of uncertainty that has surrounded BGE rates for the past several months.

The PSC, the governor, the legislature and others proposed plan after plan to stave off the 72 percent increase in electricity bills due July 1, leaving many consumers confused, angry and looking to assign blame.

But legislators say that uncertainty won't last long.

The General Assembly now stands in recess from a brief special session called last week, which means members can return to work quickly. Top lawmakers said they will convene in Annapolis at noon today to override the veto and restore the plan they passed last week in both chambers. They expect to wrap up their work by late afternoon.

Ultimately, House Speaker Michael E. Busch said, Ehrlich's veto is pointless.

"It's just costing citizens however many thousands of dollars for us to come back in and override," Busch said.

The bill passed with bipartisan support, and legislators say they have more than enough votes to override the governor and put the issue to rest.

"We've been calling everybody up, and it looks like we have the requisite 85 override votes to get the job done. More than 85," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "Our objective is to not let it hang out over the weekend."

Ehrlich's decision gives him an odd place in history. Special sessions are rare in Maryland, but Ehrlich became the first governor in memory to call two in one term; he also brought lawmakers back to Annapolis at the end of 2004 to enact medical malpractice reform.

Yesterday he gave himself an additional distinction: He called two special sessions and vetoed the product of both of them. Today, the legislature appears likely to add to the rarity: two special sessions, two vetoes and two overrides.

"We are in an unusual time," Busch said.

Democrats say Ehrlich's suggestions about eliminating interest charges and giving consumers a choice in whether to participate would diminish the amount of rate relief available to customers, put the financial stability of BGE at risk and remove any chance for more significant cuts in the price of electricity in the future.

BGE rates are due to rise 72 percent on July 1 because of the expiration of rate caps instituted in Maryland's 1999 electricity deregulation plan. The issue of how to soften the increase has become the hottest topic in the gubernatorial campaign this summer.

Ehrlich began airing television commercials this week praising his leadership on the issue. They followed ads on BGE rates by the governor's Democratic rival, Mayor Martin O'Malley, whose lawsuit against the PSC helped prompt the special session and earned him kudos from party members.

Republicans said yesterday that they expect to win the battle in the public arena, if not in the legislature.

"We'll make the case, we'll win the argument, but we'll lose the vote," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority whip from Southern Maryland.

Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday that he believes consumers are on his side.

The governor, who held a six-hour public hearing on the issue Tuesday, said he came to his decision based on "comments from thousands of Marylanders" - through e-mails, faxes and "people grabbing me on the street." He said no other issue in his career has galvanized so many people - with the exception of the presidential impeachment when he was a member of Congress.

"Everyone has an opinion and they want you to know that opinion," he said.

Ehrlich said in his veto message that he could not support the measure because it gives consumers no choice about whether to participate in the deferral plan, which caps this year's rate increase at 15 percent but requires customers to pay a monthly fee for 10 years.

Democrats and utility industry experts say allowing some customers to opt out would diminish the level of rate relief BGE could provide because it would force the company into a more expensive financing plan for the debt it would have to incur.

Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore County Democrat who initially raised objections to the lack of consumer choice in the bill, said that as her constituents have learned more about the plan they have stopped objecting to that provision.

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