The PSC in limbo

August 22, 2006

It's been six weeks since the Court of Appeals started mulling over the legality of the General Assembly's decision to remove Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler and fellow members of the Public Service Commission, and Maryland's highest court has yet to issue a ruling. This has kept Mr. Schisler and three current commissioners in a kind of lame-duck status (and left a fifth commission seat vacant). In most matters before the court, a six-week delay might be thought inconsequential. But the future of the PSC - and its implications for utility prices and the coming election - demands a more expedited approach.

The political potency of this case is clear. People are angry at the state's failure to properly regulate BGE. A recent survey conducted for this newspaper found that nearly half of voters think that rising electricity rates are an important enough issue to "make a difference" in their selection for governor.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has made the legislative "overreaching" a major campaign theme, and so the Schisler lawsuit would seem to serve that message. Despite a theatrically indignant initial denial, an official with the Maryland Republican Party recently acknowledged that $20,000 from a federal campaign account has financed the legal challenge. If there was any doubt about who calls the tunes at the "independent" PSC, that arrangement certainly clarified matters. One can only imagine the hue and cry from Mr. Ehrlich if the Democrats were using campaign donations for similar purposes.

Each day the court delays, the PSC and the industries it regulates are put in even more difficult circumstances. How credible is a regulator who is set to be replaced in a day, a week or a month? The General Assembly's rate deferral bill not only reorganized the PSC; lawmakers also called upon the commission to consider fundamental reforms in how power is regulated. How valuable is such an effort if it's attempted by the current (and discredited) PSC, or if there's little time for a new board to accomplish such a daunting task before rates rise again?

Within the State House, the court's inaction has not gone unnoticed and has led to all kinds of speculation about what may be causing the delay, from simple indecision to various scenarios of political intrigue. Certainly, the issue seems no more complex or far-reaching than the early-voting case that the court has moved along more expeditiously. Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. required only a day to uphold the legislature's right to reconstitute the PSC. Whether the court agrees or disagrees with him, any further judicial delay is only going to make matters worse.

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