Help wanted

January 31, 2007

The resignation of the chairman of Maryland's Public Service Commission, Kenneth D. Schisler, is a welcome, if overdue, event. Mr. Schisler's credibility had bottomed out quite some time ago, and his lingering presence on the board threatened some ugly legal machinations. And while Mr. Schisler's actions (or inactions) are hardly the primary reason Baltimore Gas and Electric customers are likely to face much higher electricity bills this summer, he clearly wasn't going to be part of any long-term solution.

But now the burden is on Gov. Martin O'Malley to fill two PSC vacancies and, along with Commissioner Harold D. Williams, create a new working majority on the five-member panel. They will need to be people with a strong background in utilities, well-versed in the PSC, who have the temperament for public policy and are not beholden to any regulated industry. That's a tall order, but it's a matter Mr. O'Malley has had weeks, if not months, to ponder.

The first item on the agenda for this new PSC will certainly be BGE's pending rate proposal. But the commission should also be forward-looking. What's needed is a thorough assessment of the fundamental relationship between the state and the utilities. No one can wave a magic wand and restore matters to the way they existed in the 1990s. Rising energy prices are a global fact of life. But there are alternatives to consider, from electricity buying pools to the development of new energy infrastructure in the state. The PSC ought to be advising the governor and legislature on which strategies to pursue.

One early test for a new PSC will be its handling of Allegheny Power as the Pennsylvania-based provider of electricity to Western Maryland moves to uncapped rates in 2009. The BGE experience should not be repeated. And just because the Constellation Energy-FPL Group merger was called off doesn't mean other consolidations won't come up.

It's a tough job and a difficult time, but the next PSC chairman has one advantage over Mr. Schisler: He won't have to implement the bulk of deregulation. For better or worse, that's already happened.

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