Court rulings loom large in campaigns

PSC decision, other issues help shape governor's race

Maryland Votes 2006

September 17, 2006|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Maryland's highest court moved toward settling lingering legal questions in this year's contentious battle over electric rates, but the Public Service Commission continues to play a prominent role in the gubernatorial campaign as both candidates seek judgment of another kind - from voters.

For Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the pitch has been far easier to make. By restoring the members of the embattled regulatory commission, the Court of Appeals validated a refrain the Republican has sounded for weeks: that the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has "chronically overreached" its authority on key issues.

But Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's campaign did not concede defeat, even though the Democrat repeatedly called for the firing of the PSC. Instead, his campaign argued that the decision sharpened the image of Ehrlich as a leader who is unwilling to compromise, even when residents are faced with steep electric rate increases.

Whether either candidate can score political points from the PSC decision in the Nov. 7 general election might ultimately turn on fundamental perceptions about how government works best - contentious two-party rule that frequently fails to find compromise, or the go-along-to-get-along control of both branches of the State House by the same party.

"I think it's certainly possible that a singular plurality of Maryland voters prefer a divided government, if the opposite is a smooth-running administration that rubber-stamps everything," said James G. Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Wins for Ehrlich

For Ehrlich, last week's decision was the third case in which courts essentially agreed with his vetoes of laws that were passed by the Democratic majority in the Assembly. Earlier decisions blocked a plan for early voting in Maryland and a law that would have required Wal-Mart to pay more for employee health insurance.

Ehrlich has frequently argued that power-sharing between parties provides more effective government. At a candidates forum last week, the governor told members of the Maryland chapter of the AARP that "multiparty democracy broke out in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. It can break out in Maryland in 2006. ... That's what our campaign is all about."

"When you look at the early-voting decision, the Wal-Mart tax decision and this PSC decision, it's a reminder of the important role our courts play," said Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell. "It's a reminder that our General Assembly, under its current leadership, needs restraint."

O'Malley, on the other hand, has tried to characterize himself as a leader who works to find compromise among disparate views. The mayor has repeatedly suggested that Ehrlich goes out of his way to fight with the legislature and that two-party rule, under Ehrlich, has produced more legislative gridlock than anything else.

"There's no shortage of opinions in Annapolis, and while debate and discussion on issues is healthy for democracy, it means very little at the end of the day if the chief executive is unwilling to compromise to move our state forward," O'Malley campaign spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said. "We see it time and again."

Regardless of the court's decision in the PSC case, O'Malley said, the legislature was right to try to remove PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, who was appointed by Ehrlich. The mayor has argued that Schisler did not have the best interests of residents in mind when he collaborated with utility lobbyists on legislation and the hiring of regulators.

Firings promised

"Any other governor would have been so embarrassed by the behavior of his chairman of the PSC that he would have asked for his resignation himself a long time ago," said O'Malley, who vowed to fire the current members of the PSC if elected.

Though Thursday's court decision might have political implications for both candidates, it will not affect how much residents pay for electricity. BGE rates had been set to rise 72 percent July 1, upon the expiration of six-year caps on the rates that were part of the state's transition to a deregulated energy market.

The Assembly convened a special session and passed a law limiting the rate increase to 15 percent for 11 months, deferring the transition to full market rates until 2008. In June, the legislature restored that law over Ehrlich's veto and placed the temporary cap on rate increases. The law also removed the members of the PSC and gave the Assembly power to make new appointments.

Thursday's decision, which struck down only that part of the law dealing with the members of the PSC, was also a victory for a number of industries that have business pending before the body. Michael C. Powell, a Baltimore attorney who represents institutional purchasers of electricity, said the decision will bring some stability to the commission - at least for the next several months.

`Long-term instability'

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