O'malley Tried, Unable To Stop Jump In Bge Rates

November 03, 2009|By Jay Hancock

The video, lovingly promoted by Maryland Republicans, has gotten nearly 4,000 hits on YouTube. It's a 2006 ad for the successful gubernatorial campaign of Martin O'Malley.

"How did this happen?" says the somber voice-over guy, as images of electricity hardware fill the screen. "An increase in utility rates, costing consumers and seniors while energy companies make record profits? The special interests already have their governor. We need one of our own - Martin O'Malley, taking on BG and E to stop the rate hikes. ..."

You can't say O'Malley didn't try. Today Baltimore Gas and Electric electricity prices are even higher than they were in 2006, as his critics like to point out.

But since he took office the governor has gone after BGE's parent again and again to obtain one-time rebates for household customers, stop future surcharges and protect BGE from financial trauma.

In a day when politicians forget about campaign pledges the day after the election and expect voters do the same, give O'Malley credit for trying to keep a bargain.

Also conclude that he realized this was an issue that wouldn't disappear. Certainly his Republican election rival next year - whoever that turns out to be - won't be shy about mentioning BGE.

But in his latest salvo O'Malley overreached and offered new ammunition for critics to portray Maryland as off-kilter when it comes to business regulation.

In fact, Maryland's reputation of being difficult for business is frequently exaggerated. But when the governor backs out of a deal with one of the state's biggest companies and prompts financial analysts to compare Maryland to communist China on a widely heard conference call, it may not be worth $100.

That's how much BGE parent Constellation Energy has to credit each BGE household as part of its deal to expand its nuclear energy partnership with the French EDF Group. A hundred bucks is about 6 percent of a typical BGE family's annual electricity bill.

Last year BGE customers got a $170 rebate as part of a previous settlement. In that deal, O'Malley and his Public Service Commission tried to revisit the disastrous 1999 deregulation that freed BGE's generation plants from PSC control.

Of course the state couldn't re-regulate the plants. Or make Constellation refund the nearly $1 billion in "stranded costs" that BGE customers had to pay after the generators were deregulated.

But O'Malley got Constellation to give up one of the more obnoxious features of the 1999 law - the one that gave it ownership and profits from the Calvert Cliffs nuclear generators but required BGE customers to pay into a fund to decommission them decades from now.

Not having to pay for decommissioning will save BGE customers something like $1.5 billion - albeit over many years in the future. The $170-per-home rebate came to about $187 million. And the $100 credit adds up to $110 million. O'Malley's PSC also started pushing back against poor federal regulation of wholesale electricity markets that drive up prices for all Maryland consumers, not just BGE customers.

Another O'Malley accomplishment is Constellation's agreement to prop up BGE's finances and insulate it from financial trauma at its parent. As part of the EDF deal, the PSC required Constellation to invest $250 million cash in BGE and agree to future limits on potential subsidies from BGE customers to Constellation's unregulated businesses.

But it was the way the governor went about getting these last concessions that may backfire on him. As part of last year's settlement, O'Malley and the General Assembly agreed to draw bright lines showing where the PSC's jurisdiction stopped.

Constellation wanted assurance that the commission wouldn't assert authority in deals that didn't involve substantial control over BGE. Constellation's agreement to accept $4.5 billion from EDF for nuclear investment had little to do with BGE. But the commission moved in anyway, launching months of jockeying and hearings that jeopardized the agreement and the companies' pledge to build a needed new nuclear-electricity reactor in Maryland.

"I had a couple more questions on the People's Republic of Maryland," one analyst asked Constellation boss Mayo Shattuck on an investor conference call in July.

O'Malley's repeated, unsuccessful attempts to cut Shattuck's pay (indefensible as it is) probably didn't persuade any CEOs to move their companies to Maryland any time soon, either. So don't judge O'Malley for not trying. Blame him for promising more than he could deliver and then trying a little too hard.

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