Critics refocus on state PSC

Lawmakers want to oust members, cut electricity from purview

January 21, 2007|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,[sun reporter]

After a year in which the General Assembly tried to fire members of the Public Service Commission over its handling of skyrocketing electricity rates, legislative leaders are still seeking the ouster of one or more panel members but now say they want an amicable parting.

"People deserve to be treated with dignity," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who said last year he had lost confidence in the commissioners.

Miller said he plans to meet with PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, whom Miller got to know when Schisler served in the House of Delegates, as early as this week. Miller hopes to work out an "easy transition" under which the regulator would leave before his five-year term expires next year.

Del. Dereck E. Davis, another PSC critic and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, also said he would like to see an "amicable separation" with Schisler.

Meanwhile, legislators are exploring ways to remove the commissioners from overseeing electric utilities, including the creation of a separate regulator or some other form of restructuring. And the possibility remains that Gov. Martin O'Malley could fire the commissioners. Maryland law says a governor can remove commissioners for "incompetence or misconduct."

"We're still looking at our options," O'Malley said. "We know that's something we need to address real soon; sooner rather than later."

Rising electricity rates were a dominant political topic for much of the past year. Democrats in the General Assembly traded blows with former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over how to blunt the impact of a proposed 72 percent BGE electricity rate increase. The energy company's rates had been frozen for years as part of a 1999 deregulation plan that took full effect last year.

When the Ehrlich-appointed PSC did little in the eyes of Democrats to soften the election-year increase, critics said panel members had grown too cozy with the companies they oversee and that Ehrlich had created a regulatory environment too friendly to business.

E-mails released last year showed Schisler had a close relationship with utility lobbyists and company executives, taking hunting trips and sharing strategies on how to sway lawmakers. The disclosures prompted outrage from lawmakers and O'Malley, who made restoration of a consumer-oriented regulatory agency a key campaign pledge, which he repeated in his inaugural address last week.

It is unclear whether commissioners would go without a legal fight. Schisler could not be reached Friday, and PSC spokeswoman Bethany M. Gill declined to comment. As for how the commissioners are faring, Gill said, "We'll continue to go about our business as usual as much as possible."

The General Assembly's attempt last year to fire the commissioners through legislation was struck down by Maryland's highest court, which ruled that it usurped gubernatorial power. Ehrlich had backed the PSC and vetoed the bill, but the Democrat-controlled legislature overrode him, setting up the court battle.

Miller contrasted efforts to remove PSC commissioners with Ehrlich's firing of a few hundred state employees, which set off outcry from Democrats who accused him of doing so for political reasons. "We would like to avoid the ugly situation that occurred in the last couple of years when people were terminated and escorted from buildings by armed guards," he said.

Ralph S. Tyler, the former Baltimore city solicitor who now works in O'Malley's administration, said he is reviewing possible action and plans to consult legislative leaders. Tyler led a legal effort on the city's behalf to stop the 72 percent rate increase.

"People are looking for ways to give the general public a better advocate," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said. "Obviously, the corporate interests have been represented, as we found out in the last year."

Sen. E. J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said he plans to introduce legislation that would establish an electricity board and leave the PSC to continue to regulate telephone, water and sewage companies, and taxis. "The problem is that, on net, we have commissioners who are believers in this failed deregulated market," Pipkin said.

Sen. John C. Astle, vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said Pipkin's proposal is "worth considering" but said he's "not sure you want to create another bureaucracy to fix a bureaucracy."

Davis said that Schisler might be willing to resign "with the proper concessions," though he declined to give more details. That would give O'Malley the opportunity to have a majority of his appointees on the five-member commission later this year because there is one vacancy and Commissioner Harold D. Williams' term expires in the coming months.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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