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Sun Q&A

David Nitkin on state politics issues

Editor answers questions on BGE rates, Steele, slots

March 28, 2006

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BGE rates
Bryan, Newark, Del.: Are the members of the state Senate and House worried about being voted out of office in November if they voted for deregulation? In Delaware, there is a strong effort to vote out anyone who voted for deregulation and Delmarva power is only raising prices by 59 percent. Also, is Senate President [Thomas V.] Mike Miller now regretting that he pushed so hard for energy deregulation and his prediction that "competition will drive prices down..."?

Nitkin: Lawmakers are certainly fearful of the implications of electric rate increases for the fall election, when all 188 seats in the General Assembly are up. I know of no organized "throw the bums out" campaign. I also have not heard Miller express remorse about the deregulation bill he helped pass in 1999.

Jef Jefferson, Millersville: There is talk that Constellation Energy will allow the state to be party to merger plans with Florida Power. Just how much control will the state have?

Nitkin: Lawmakers in the House of Delegates on Monday passed a bill that would give them veto power over the merger between Constellation Energy Group and FPL Group of Florida. The legislation would create a special counsel who would examine the merger and report to the Assembly on whether it is good for state consumers. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he supports the merger, and [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.] officials say they would not provide a phase-in plan for rate increases if the Assembly intervenes in the merger.

Chris, Baltimore: I'm not sure I see what is newsworthy about the fact that a lobbyist is communicating to a state agency head. Isn't it the business of lobbyists to communicate to legislators and agency heads? And from reading the e-mail between the lobbyist and the head of the [Public Service Commission], I can't see that it represented any more than a chat between two people who are obviously friends; no policy matters were discussed. Please advise why this is news at all, much less grounds to call for the resignation of the PSC head.

Nitkin: Policy matters were discussed in the e-mail exchange between PSC head Kenneth D. Schisler and utilities lobbyist Carville B. Collins. They discussed the name of the next Ehrlich appointee to the five-member commission, information any lobbyist would love to have. Schisler also discussed with Collins how to develop a strategy to handle Miller to prevent the legislator from playing "political football" with impending rate increases. These are some of the most important policy matters before the commission. You are right that it is a lobbyist's job to try to gain access and have his clients' voices heard in government. That doesn't mean the regulator or government official has to respond or go along.

Stuart, Baltimore: It is obvious that you do not like the governor. However, don't you think that it would be fair if you mentioned that in 1999, the Democratic legislature and Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening created and signed the law in question. They agreed with BGE that the rates would be frozen for six years. After that, BGE could do whatever they needed to do. To blame the current governor for a deal that he was not involved in is ironic.

Nitkin: Almost every article we write about deregulation and the impending electricity rate increase has mentioned that it passed in 1999 and was supported by a clear majority of Democrats in the House and Senate. Every Republican in the General Assembly also voted for the bill in 1999. I don't think people are blaming the governor for the deregulation bill, but they are looking to him now for leadership and solutions in the face of a 72 percent rate increase.

Steele
David Keelan, Ellicott City: Regarding The Sun article "Donations to Steele scrutinized," the article states that Lt. Gov. [Michael S.] Steele collected thousands of dollars in contributions from nonprofits who were recipients of state grants prior to his announcement that he would run for U.S. Senate (but also while he was publicly considering a run in 2010 for governor).The article references "nods and winks." It also says he was the "sole decision-maker as to how these moneys were to be allocated."

The article's first paragraph says "...organizations selected by his [Steele's] office ..." but seven paragraphs later, the article states Steele's office was "asked ... to recommend African-American organizations to receive the proceeds." Was he or was he not the "sole-decision maker?" The article isn't clear.

The article also omits that Mike Little's Oxon Hill company contributed to the Steele campaign in 2003. The rest of the article basically comes down to the issue of appearances. Would you recommend that The Sun write an article about [U.S. Rep. Benjamin L.] Cardin and his campaign fundraising as a member of the very influential Ways and Means Committee, ranking member of the trade subcommittee and a member of the Human Resources subcommittee? A review of Politicalmoneyline.com and Congressman Cardin campaign funding sources raises a lot of the same questions as this article does about Steele.

Nitkin: Steele, by all appearances, was the sole decision-maker for the disbursement of settlement money from Monumental. The state insurance commissioner asked Steele's office for recommendations. Steele, through an aide, recommended four groups. All four received the money. The insurance commissioner's office says no one else was asked for input. The letters announcing the funding said the grants were being made on behalf of the lieutenant governor. That's a pretty clear chain of events.

When questions about the fundraising of Cardin have come up, such as the amount of money he has received from political action committees, we have reported on that.

Issues
Kurt Gladsky, Towson: Why do Maryland legislators resist enacting laws to protect Maryland children from sexual predators?

Nitkin: Legislation to toughen the penalties and reporting requirements for sexual predators is poised to pass the General Assembly this year. Several lawmakers who are defense attorneys are members of the judicial committees in the House and the Senate, which consider such legislation. Those committees have historically been cautious in passing legislation that calls for tougher sentences for some crimes.

Charlie, Pasadena: My question is, who are the legislators against slots and a list of who are for it? Then, we could vote the ones out who are against, including Miller.

Nitkin: The answer to your question is not as simple as it would seem. The Maryland Senate passed a slots plan for three consecutive years (2003, 2004, 2005). In the first two of those years, the bill died in a House of Delegates committee. A year ago, House Speaker Michael E. Busch cobbled together the barest of majorities for a different version of a slots plan -- one that Republicans voted against. But those same Republicans probably would have voted for Ehrlich's slots bill. There has not been one single slots plan that has been voted on in both the House and the Senate, so the tally you are looking for is not really possible.

You refer to Miller, and I assume you mean Senate President Miller, who is a slots supporter. The presiding officer who has played the largest role in blocking slots is Busch, the House speaker.