David Nitkin on state politics issues

Energy ratesDiane, Arnold: How long before the [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.] rate hike and the surging gas pricestake a serious toll on the [Maryland] economy as reflected in cost of livingindicators? All of us know that money will be tighter for discretionaryspending, but what real effect will it have on the economy, [specifically] a drifttoward a recession?

Nitkin: Most economic analysts predict a strong future for Maryland'seconomy because of a continued infusion of federal jobs as part of thebase-realignment process. Maryland is a wealthy state, and while the costof living will rise, unemployment is low and economic indicators lookhealthy. However, a confluence of factors -- including fuel prices, and therevision of adjustable rate mortgages -- does have the potential to have anegative impact.

Joanne Rusk, Annapolis: I currently am on the BGE "budget plan." My rate went up 26 percent inMarch. If the plan moves forward as the governor plans and BGE customersare to pay 19 percent as of [July 1], am I to assume that the 19 percent will be over andabove the 26 percent? If so, that's outrageous!

Nitkin: The Sun had a story today describing how some budget-billingcustomers have already seen increases of 70 percent, although the increaseshave varied.

I forwarded your question to Rob Gould, head of corporate communicationsfor BGE parent Constellation Energy Group, and here is his response:

"The budget bill amount will not change on July 1 as some increase hasalready been factored in. The next change will be at the start of the newbudget billing year, or September.

"Essentially, the transition plan is independent of the budget billcalculation.

"If a customer is on budget billing -- the amount of the budget bill isdetermined independently of whether or not the customer chooses to opt into the transition plan. Thus, the budget bill amounts will be calculated asthey always have been and will reflect the full increase from currentfrozen rates to market rates for electricity supply.

"If the budget-billing customer does opt in to the transition plan, theywill receive the same schedule of transition credits and deferralrepayments as any other customer.

"By choosing to opt in to the transition plan, the effect will be a creditbeginning on July 1 to offset the increase in either standard rates orbudget billing charges."

Dave, Bel Air: Please explain to me how Mayor Martin O'Malley can blame [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] for the rising cost of gas, and especially the 72 percent rate increasefor BGE electricity? Seems like O'Malley has forgotten that the governordoesn't have control over the cost of gasoline, and that the formergovernor and Democratic legislature enacted the price regulation of 1999.[Don't] O'Malley's comments seem like "throw it against the wall, and seewhat sticks" politics?

Nitkin: The deregulation law was passed in 1999, whenEhrlich was in Congress, and the six-year rate caps were approved by aPublic Service Commission appointed by Democratic Gov. Parris N.Glendening. Ehrlich can justifiably say he had no part of the Marylandplan, although he did vote for a federal deregulation law while in Congress(and every Republican in the General Assembly voted for the 1999 bill).

O'Malley says that the current Public Service Commission could havedone more to protect consumers from the rate increase that is occurringwith the lifting of the caps. Ehrlich has acknowledged that heappointed PSC commissioners and wanted PSC staff who were businessfriendly, and e-mail exchanges show a close relationship between PSCChairman Kenneth D. Schisler, an Ehrlich appointee, and utility companylobbyists, notably one who was also a lawyer for BGE until recently.

Mary Lewis, Baltimore: Why is it that The Sun always has to point out that the PSC wasappointed by Ehrlich? There is enough blame for everybody -- the mayor,governor, legislature, everyone involved. To imply to readers that this wasall Ehrlich's fault is not fair.

Nitkin: To be fair, I don't see any blame for O'Malley regardingrates. But there is certainly blame for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and legislative Democrats and Republicans who voted for the law; and forGlendening, who signed it. To point out that Ehrlich appointedfour of the five current members of the PSC, who must now deal with theissue, is in no way implying that the current rate situation is Ehrlich'sfault.

Cate, Towson: Why doesn't anyone mention the basic flaws with BGE and thebusiness model? I see that BGE fails as a business in [two] ways. First, afterthe Enron and California debacle[s] and the war in Iraq, why didn't BGEpurchase contracts when prices were lower in anticipation of a highermarket? The trends have been obvious for years. Second, there is noincentive for BGE to keep prices lower. The reality is the consumer marketwill not be competitive for a very long time, if ever, so their profits arebuilt in. The only solution I can see is to nationalize utility companies.Any comments?

Nitkin: My only comment is that I am not an economist, a business major oran industry analyst, so am ill-equipped to offer an opinion on the BGEbusiness model in a deregulated environment. I can say that many states arelooking for ways to fix or alter their deregulation laws, and that theEnron-era laws passed don't seem to be providing the consumer benefits ashoped.

General Assembly Benjamin Brown, Glen Burnie: There was legislation before the Assembly this year aboutreporting hospital infections. I know it died last year but I didn't hearanything about this year.

Nitkin: Checking the General Assembly Web site, I find this bill -- SB135/HB 78 -- with the following synopsis: "Requiring a comparable evaluationsystem established by the Maryland Health Care Commission to include healthcare-associated infection information from hospitals; requiring the systemto adhere, to the extent possible, to recommendations regarding publicreporting of health care-associated infections; etc." Both bills passed theHouse and Senate unanimously, and became law April 8, without thegovernor's signature. The legislation takes effect July 1.

Another bill -- HB 966 -- was defeated. It has the following synopsis:"Requiring hospitals and nursing facilities to establish a healthcare-associated infection and control program; requiring the Department ofHealth and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with specified groups andstakeholders, to develop a system regarding the reporting of specifiedhealth care-associated infections; requiring DHMH to make a specifiedreport to specified committees of the General Assembly on or beforeDecember 1, 2006; etc."

Governor's race Dave, Owings Mills: Do you think the voters will see through O'Malley'sconstant whining and criticism of the governor [and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M.] Duncan? O'Malley claimsto have improved graduation and reading skills of children in publicschools. Yet it seems to me that statistics show only a small number ofstudents pass math, English, and other standard testing. How can O'Malleytout that he has improved the education system of [Baltimore] City?

Nitkin: The governor has called O'Malley a "whiner," which is a subjectivecomment, and one that I won't address.

Last summer, O'Malley began talking about progress in city schools,based on some encouraging test scores. His evidence, as reported by Sunstaffer Doug Donovan in a July 2005 article: "Five years ago, not a singlegrade's majority of students scored proficient in reading and mathtests. This year, a majority of the first- through fourth-graders in thecity school system earned proficient scores."

"That is rapid progress," O'Malley was quoted as saying in the article."We continue to make quicker progress in turning around a big urban schoolsystem than any other big city in the nation."

But no one would argue that city schools are in great shape. Federallawsuits over proper education for special needs students have driven a wedgebetween city and state officials, with the state noting that virtually noneof the city's special education students are getting the eduction they arerequired to receive. The city is promising a new spirit of cooperation andrecently dropped an appeal of a judge's ruling that allows near-total stateoversight of Baltimore special education.

More recently, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick recommendednew management -- which critics called a state takeover -- of seven Baltimoremiddle schools and four high schools, saying they were not making theprogress required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It would havebeen the first such state action under the federal law in the nation. Manycity politicians said Grasmick's abrupt action was taken despite progressin city schools. Worried about the politics behind the "takeover,"lawmakers quickly voted for a one-year moratorium on state action. Thegovernor vetoed the bill, and the General Assembly overrode the veto.

Steve, Fells Point: The Sun often includes commentary from political analysts -- say, professorsat local universities. But why aren't people taken off of the list whenthey affiliate with a candidate? To pick a name, Tom Schaller is aprofessor at [the University of Maryland, Baltimore County] and is closely linked with O'Malley as an adviser or something. So, why interview him as a political scientist to comment onstate campaign issues?

It isn't as though he is commenting as a politicalscientist -- he's commenting as a shill for O'Malley. It seems like lazinesson the part of reporters. These guys are accessible, [and] it gives a quote forthe story. But you aren't getting impartial or independent opinion. Aren'tthere other political scientists out there to talk to?

Nitkin: In an effort to provide context and analysis for our politicalstories, The Sun often turns to political science professors at some of themany colleges and universities in Maryland and elsewhere. Some professors'names appear much more frequently than others. Part of the reason, as younote, is accessibility: Professors know that if they call back quickly orpick up their cell phones or are available at home and on weekends, theyare more likely to have their views included. That's a valuable asset forreporters on tight deadlines. But we also judge the quality of theiranalysis over time. Those quoted most frequently also tend to be the mostastute -- we turn to them because they're incisive.

Personally, I like Tom Schaller, and think he is very smart andhard-working and perceptive. But he is a staunch O'Malley supporter, andfor that reason, we have greatly curtailed using him as a source in ourdaily political coverage. Our library shows that the last time I quoted himwas in October 2005, and his name has not appeared as a source in anarticle so far in 2006. We do try to note the political affiliations of theprofessors we quote to give readers an idea of their orientation.

Janet Owens Mike, Baltimore: Is there any proof that Jewish voters actually care whether acandidate for state office has paid the apparently obligatory visit toIsrael. I'm Jewish and I love Israel, but frankly I don't care. Who does?

Nitkin: We've referred several times recently to the fact that AnneArundel County Executive Janet Owens traveled to Israel as part of a tripsponsored by The Associated: The Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore,in anticipation of a run for Congress. There is a large and influentialJewish population in Maryland, both in the Baltimore and Washingtonregions.

The Baltimore Jewish group organizes trips for political, businessand community leaders to learn about Israel and Middle Eastern politics,culture and history. On a practical level, the trip allows politicians tospeak with more knowledge about Israel and Jewish interests when they arecampaigning. But I agree that most voters care very little whether a leaderhas made such a visit. In Owens' case, she at the time was considering arun for Congress -- making foreign affairs expertise more relevant. Sincethen, she has decided to run for state comptroller.

Last but not least ... Geoffrey Beaumont, Baltimore: What is the latest with the Coe Commission?

The recent flair-up about the Public Service Commission being stacked withEhrlich political cronies and the corresponding incompetence in handlingthe looming electric bill hike crisis has many asking if the lights are onin the State House.

This recent issue is a microcosm of problems throughout the Ehrlichadministration that few are aware of and most of the public will nevernotice. The problem is the degree to which state jobs under thisadministration have been [doled]-out for solely political reasons and notfor merit. While every administration experiences this issue to a limiteddegree, Ehrlich has done this to unprecedented levels and the negativeeffects are being felt.

Ehrlich has done long-term damage to the state of Maryland by carelesslyplacing pure politicos throughout state government. In many cases suchpeople replaced professional staff with advanced degrees and years ofexperience associated with their jobs. You may not see the negative effectson the front page of the newspaper every day, but damage is still beingdone.

The following sampling of what's happened in several agencies (somecovered in the press and some not) provides a pretty clear picture of theproblem:

  • Environment -- The upper tier of the agency's appointees is packed with past BGE/Constellation Energy and other industry employees.
  • Natural Resources -- Many of the agency's best professionals were fired or forced out. The deputy secretary is a wireman for Verizon and used to be one of the most anti-environmental legislators in the General Assembly. The secretary is a dentist.
  • Transportation -- There has been a lot of press about the ice skater at the port administration, and many Republican operatives are taking shelter in that very large and powerful agency. The secretary used to be the Republican minority leader in the Senate. As with many other agencies, a lot of the better professionals have left.
  • Planning -- There were reports early on about how this small agency created a whole new layer of management just so they could create assistant secretary positions for political hacks. The secretary has a personal driver, and none of the political appointees have planning experience. In addition, many hard-working professionals had to be laid off to make room for these people. Is anyone ever going to take steps to "professionalize" state government? Nitkin: One correction to your description: The transportation secretary, Bob Flanagan, used to be in the House of Delegates, not the Senate. The legislative committee investigating Ehrlich's hiring practices did not complete its work during the recently concluded legislative session, and is continuing with hearings. It held one last week at which former Public Service Commission employees testified about how they were fired. One of the co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat from Charles County, introduced legislation during the session to make changes to personnel policy, protecting workers in some areas. The legislation did not pass. It's unclear at this point what the result of the commission will be when it wraps up its work in the weeks ahead. It probably will issue a report, and recommend personnel law changes. A political reality is that if any laws were passed during the 2006 session, they could have locked in Ehrlich administration appointees and hires even in the event that the governor loses his re-election bid. To be sure, Democratic Assembly leaders did not want to do this. In my view, that explains much of the delay.
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