Rate worries may lead to an electric election

July 16, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

They spent months debating an expected spike in electricity bills, trading barbs over who was to blame and hatching plans to blunt the consumer impact of higher energy costs. But a new Sun poll suggests that it might be the politicians who will pay the price for higher rates.

Months after a proposed 72 percent rate increase for Baltimore Gas and Electric customers became a dominant political topic, Marylanders named the cost of energy as the third-most-important challenge facing the state today, behind education and the economy.

More than four in 10 likely voters said they will base their decision in the governor's race at least in part on electricity rate concerns.

"It makes me so upset that we're paying them to help us and they're not doing anything," said Robin Heard, a 45-year-old single mother and Dundalk Democrat who echoed a frustration over electricity rates expressed by many who took part in the poll. "They should just get rid of everybody in government and start over again."

Fifty percent of voters, however, said it is not that important in the governor's race.

The poll offers conflicting evidence about which politician - Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat - is best positioned to capitalize on consumer angst.

Many voters approve how the governor handled a special session of the General Assembly convened last month to deal with electricity issues.

Four in 10 said the governor was right to veto a rate deferral plan approved by the Democratic-controlled Assembly, while fewer than three in 10 said lawmakers came up with a good solution.

But asked separately about which candidate would do better in keeping electricity costs in check, 43 percent of voters picked O'Malley, while 35 percent named the governor.

BGE rates had been set to rise 72 percent July 1 after the expiration of six-year caps on rates that were part of the state's transition to a deregulated energy market.

Ehrlich negotiated a rate-deferral plan that was approved by the state's Public Service Commission, but O'Malley sued to have the action overturned.

The Assembly convened the special session to approve an alternative plan, which reduced the rate increase to 15 percent for 11 months and deferred a transition to full market rates until 2008. Ehrlich vetoed the bill, but the legislature overrode his decision, and the plan was in place as the first of the higher bills were mailed this month.

Ehrlich's veto won broad support among voters, including among traditional Democratic constituencies such as blacks and women.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said he believes consumers are displeased with the Assembly's plan because it requires BGE to borrow millions to keep its bills artificially low in the short term, and does not give customers the ability to opt out and avoid repayment charges.

"The two big issues throughout this whole process were consumer choice and interest," said Fawell. "Consumers do not want government forcing them to take out a 10-year loan with interest, and that's precisely what the Maryland General Assembly did with Mayor O'Malley's blessing."

Credits being offered by BGE will offset interest, Democrats point out.

At least part of the support for Ehrlich's veto might be the result of his ability to convey his message more effectively than individual members of the legislature, said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., the independent Bethesda-based company that conducted the poll. Lawmakers lack the use of the same kind of bully pulpit that governors have, he said.

"The governor has been on [talk radio], day after day, telling people his message," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "It shouldn't be about blame. It's just a question about dealing with an issue that's before us and moving forward.

But some voters, especially those who identified themselves as conservatives, said legislative Democrats such as Miller dropped the ball in 1999 when they approved an electricity deregulation plan that called for rate caps in the first place.

"The Democrats made this arrangement in the mid-1990s ... to postpone rate increases. Now, the Democrats are trying to come along and blame Ehrlich for what they themselves did," said Sykesville resident John Sands, 63, a Republican who is backing Ehrlich.

The governor is "standing firm, at least in the public eye, on this, and I think that shows he is a man of strength," Sands said.

Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch said that the legislature's plan grants BGE more freedom to purchase power in long-term deals so that lower prices could be locked in over time.

"The fact of the matter is that energy costs are high everywhere," Busch said. "The governor called the special session to come in, didn't present any legislation, offered no input in the legislation, vetoed the bill at the end and offered no alternative."

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