BGE rate increases
Eric Schott, Baltimore: After reading the [April 10 Associated Press] article about negotiations between the [Democrats] in the legislature, the governor and Constellation, I have to ask: Since when does Constellation get to determine the composition of the [Maryland Public Service Commission]? Doesn't the legislature do that?

Nitkin: Members of the Public Service Commission are appointed by the governor, with the consent of the Senate. A bill passed by the General Assembly during the heat of [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.] rate negotiations would have disbanded the commission and replaced commissioners with two members selected by the House of Delegates, two by the Senate and one by the governor. The lawmakers who supported the bill complained that the appointees of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were too closely aligned with the utility industry. The governor vetoed the bill.

Constellation officials said that if the Assembly overturned the veto, they would withdraw their plan for rate relief. The company argued that a new PSC would add uncertainty to a pending merger with Florida Power and Light, and could adversely affect their finances. But several lawmakers questioned why the company would be so interested in PSC membership.

T.J., Baltimore: Mr. Nitkin, thank you for taking the time to answer questions every week. BGE/Constellation Energy has insisted that the PSC board remain unchanged. They seem to be claiming that "instability" of the PSC will further impair the bond rating of BGE. Is this accurate? Should we be concerned that a major utility company is so invested in the makeup of an "independent state agency" that regulates their industry?

Nitkin: There's no way to tell if a PSC shakeup would have damaged BGE and Constellation, so I can't really assess the accuracy of the company's claim. Some relationships are by definition adversarial at times, such as between the media and elected officials, and regulators and the industries they regulate.

It does appear that Constellation is comfortable with the current PSC. Ehrlich has said that he has placed business-friendly appointees on the PSC and other boards. Whether that is a concern or not depends on one's view as to how those agencies are performing.

Dave, Bel Air: The voters need to obtain a list of all current elected officials who voted for deregulation in 1999. At the top, [Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller and [House Speaker] Michael E. Busch. On Election Day, reduce their favorable votes by 72 percent, [and] bet their replacements will pay more attention to taxpayers and voters. To blame anyone except themselves is simply unacceptable.

Nitkin: The vote list for the deregulation legislation is just a few clicks away. Go to the General Assembly's Web site, and click on "prior session information." Look for the bills from 1999, and plug in SB 300 and HB 703. You'll see the vote history, and if you click on the final votes listed for the House of Delegates and the Senate, you'll find the complete roll calls.

Dave, Bel Air: Why is [Baltimore Mayor] Martin O'Malley now so concerned about electrical rate increases to city residents? Where was he for the past years as mayor of the city? Could it be that [he] sees this as a great campaign issue? Do you think [he] is going to "bash" Miller and Busch about this? After all, they were in the legislature in 1999 when this ridiculous bill was passed. Want to [bet] on that answer? [O'Malley] and the Democrats will blame it all on the governor and Republicans.

Nitkin: The electric rate issue is promoting intense partisan debate, and O'Malley, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Ehrlich all recognize that it is a campaign issue. O'Malley is already criticizing Ehrlich, not Miller or Busch, for the situation. O'Malley has called the 72 percent increase the "Ehrlich rate hike," but you are correct that it was the 1999 Assembly that developed the plan. The governor and Republicans have repeatedly made that clear, and the point seems to be sticking with many members of the public.

Veterans' bills
Editor's note: The next two questions are answered together.

Joyce D. Gantt, Baltimore: Was the veterans' bill passed during the Maryland legislative session?

Howard Spriggs, Severn: [I] haven't seen anything concerning the veterans' retirement bill ... what happened?

Nitkin: The General Assembly did approve several veterans' bills, including a new scholarship program and a tax break on military retirement income. Senate Bill 22, the legislature's tax plan, allows for a subtraction of $5,000 in military retirement income from state income taxes. Legislative analysts estimate that the savings will be $350 on the state and local portion of taxes.

Ehrlich proposed a more generous tax break -- allowing for a total 100 percent subtraction of all military retirement income. The governor's bills did not pass.

Elections
Rod, Bethesda: What is your take on the latest Garin Hart Yang Poll, which shows that O'Malley's lead over Duncan has shrunk by almost double digits, with O'Malley now leading 47 [percent] to 33 [percent], with 20 percent undecided. Is this a sign that Duncan is gaining ground and has a real chance to win?