BGE rate jump charges forum

September 15, 2006|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Ehrlich, O'Malley `don't agree on anything' Making their first joint appearance as the official gubernatorial nominees of their respective parties, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley attacked each other yesterday on such issues as electricity rates and Baltimore schools.

And Ehrlich said Maryland voters can expect more of the same bitter rhetoric over the next two months before the Nov. 7 general election.

"Elections are about contrast," Ehrlich told the audience of more than 200 members of the Maryland chapter of AARP, which acted as host for yesterday's debate. "And ... we don't agree on anything."

For much of the debate, Ehrlich and O'Malley squared off over electricity rate increases, and the 72 percent increase that had been scheduled to go into effect July 1. After much fighting during both the legislative session and a special session, the General Assembly approved a plan over Ehrlich's veto that spread out the rate increase over several years. Within hours of the event, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that part of the Assembly's law that fired state utility regulators over Ehrlich's objections was unconstitutional.

The Democratic mayor garnered loud applause when he criticized the Republican governor for appointing state Public Service Commission members - particularly chairman Kenneth D. Schisler - who were chummy with electric industry executives. The commission regulates the industry, and O'Malley said Ehrlich turned it into the "utility profit commission."

As the rate debate raged in the General Assembly, e-mails surfaced that showed Schisler had gone on hunting trips with industry officials and had asked them for baseball tickets and invitations to President Bush's inauguration.

"Instead of Kenny hustling inaugural tickets and hustling free hunting trips, he should have been protecting the people of Maryland," O'Malley said.

Later, the mayor pointed out that Schisler was fighting the General Assembly's decision to take over commission appointment powers "simply to keep his patronage job that he failed at so miserably."

Ehrlich's sarcastic response: "I know no Democratic employees have ever been given patronage jobs in the state of Maryland."

But then the governor voiced a criticism of O'Malley that he repeated almost as often as the mayor tried to link Ehrlich to "special interests."

"You can't just demonize, you can't be a pseudo-populist. That's not leadership," Ehrlich said. "Demonization and pseudo-populism sounds good in this room but it's not the facts."

The governor said the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and a Democratic governor in 1999 formulated the deregulation plan that led to the 72 percent rate increase plan. He pointed out that the PSC in 2003 counted O'Malley's brother-in-law, J. Joseph "Max" Curran III, as a member and that the commission did nothing then to head off the this year's planned increases.

Amid the candidates' exchange, John Miller, a 61-year-old retired state employee from Timonium, asked O'Malley and Ehrlich to "put away the attack dogs" during the campaign.

"I'm tired of politics the way it's being conducted today," said Miller, a registered Democrat leaning toward Ehrlich.

After applause for Miller died down, Ehrlich said he was tired of attack ads airing on television about him, but said that such tactics are necessary for candidates to display their differences. He then indirectly said O'Malley does not take responsibility for the city's woes.

The mayor responded by describing how the city public schools are improving. But when O'Malley said the city has reduced violent crime to 1960s-era levels, many in the crowd jeered.

Ehrlich also sharply disagreed with O'Malley's assessment of the city.

"He says the school system is in good shape; I say the school system is dysfunctional," Ehrlich said, getting applause of his own. "He says crime is down. I have two police commissioners who say crime statistics are being manipulated."

O'Malley said that if he were elected governor he would not "demean" any jurisdiction by promoting "unhealthy stereotypes" and that the city and all counties in Maryland could be making more progress if Ehrlich was a partner.

Ehrlich said the mayor is trying to promise voters everything.

"If everything is a priority nothing is a priority," Ehrlich said. "You don't govern through speeches. You don't govern through euphemism."

He then criticized O'Malley's repeated criticisms of "special interests" as being a trick.

"AARP is a special interest. Every plumber in this room, every teacher in this room, every lawyer in this room, every senior in this room - you're a special interest," Ehrlich said. "And if you don't want me to represent your special interest, please leave now."

AARP Maryland claims about 820,000 members. The group's director and debate moderator, Joseph DeMattos Jr., said 70 percent voted in 2004, nearly one-quarter of the entire ballots cast in the state.

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