David Nitkin on state politics issues

BGE rate increasesEric 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 mayorof 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 haverepeatedly made that clear, and the point seems to be sticking with many members of the public.

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

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

Howard Spriggs, Severn: [I] haven't seen anything concerning the veterans' retirementbill ... 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.

ElectionsRod, 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?

Nitkin: I think the poll is a sign that more people are starting to pay attention to the governor's race, and that growing numbers think that Duncan is a viable candidate. He will continue his campaign, and I expect that the Democratic primary between Duncan and O'Malley will be decided by single digits.

Donald Brady, Columbia: Lt. Gov. Michael [S.] Steele is an attorney. Is he licensedin the state of Maryland? Did he ever take the Maryland bar exam? Did he pass the Maryland bar exam?

Nitkin: Steele is a graduate of the Georgetown University law school. He has failed the bar exam in Maryland, but passed the bar in Pennsylvania. After law school, he worked for a Washington firm as an associate.

State pay raisesA baltimoresun.com reader: Will state employees get a raise?

Nitkin: Indeed, they will. The General Assembly adopted a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 that includes a range of pay increases for state workers. Nearly nine in 10 state workers -- all but the most highly paid -- will get at least a 2 percent cost-of-living increase, and some will get much more.

The legislature eliminated the four lowest pay grades for workers, bumping all of them up so that there will no longer be any state employee who earns less than $20,000 a year. That means that the very lowest-paid state workers are getting a $4,000 yearly increase.

Workers who earn about $20,000 a year are getting pay raises of about 10 percent.

Workers in pay grades nine through 16, who earn between $32,000 and $50,000 yearly, are receiving a flat $900 increase. That translates into raises of between 2 percent and 2.8 percent.

Employees earning between $50,000 and $77,000 a year will get a 2 percent cost-of-living increase. Those above $77,000 get a flat $1,400, which is a maximum of a 1.8 percent raise.

General AssemblyMya Jenkins, Baltimore: If the General Assembly isn't done finding solutions forthe problems of Baltimore, why isn't the session extended until the issues are resolved?

Nitkin: The Maryland General Assembly meets for 90 days in regular session and historically has completed its work on time. The only task the Assembly needs to do by law each year is pass a budget. After that, all other issues are discretionary. Special sessions are relatively rare. The last was a session called by Ehrlich to address medical malpractice issues in December 2004.

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