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David Nitkin on state politics issues

Energy ratesMike, Arbutus: I have to "opt in" to get screwed? What a joke.

Nitkin: The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. electric rate increase deferral plan negotiated by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and agreed to by parent company Constellation EnergyGroup requires customers to opt in. By enrolling, rate increases will be phased in over a period of 18 months to market rates, which are currently 72 percent above the electricity commodity and delivery price now charged by the company. A monthly fee will be assessed to compensate the company for its deferred revenue, and all customers -- those who opt in and opt out -- will wind up paying the same amount in three years.

The company estimates that fewer than half its residential customers will enroll. The plan, asnegotiated by the governor, includes a 5 percent yearly interest charge. The Public Service Commission, which had to approve the deferral, removed the charge, but BGE is protesting and wants it removed.

Bob, Abingdon: Please share with uninformed readers what you mean when you say "shop around." What other companies supply gas and electricity in the local market?

Nitkin: One place to start is at this Web site run by the Public Service Commission. In the BGE service area, the site lists 21 suppliers "that have met Public Service Commission and utility requirements to provide service in Maryland." But consumers have to contact individual companies to see if they can provide electricity at lower prices, and most observers say that there is not yet true competition for residential electric service.

Bryan, Olney: David, didn't the Senate already approve the current PSC members?

Nitkin: Yes, members of the PSC are nominated by the governor, and thenominations must be approved by the Senate. In 2005, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller held up for a few weeks all of the governor's nominations to boards and commissions, in part because of the concern of the qualifications of one of the nominated commissioners, Karen A. Smith, an attorney who had been the governor's head of intergovernmental affairs.

Mary Yearwood, Baltimore: What is going to happen to the budget-billed people?

Nitkin: Customers whose monthly bills are based on an annual average of their electricity and gas costs -- meaning those enrolled in BGE's budget-billing plan -- have already seen increases in their bills to reflect the 72 percent increase coming in July.

[Baltimore] Mayor [Martin] O'Malley's administration claimed that this increase was improperand asked the PSC to prohibit it, but the mayor's claim was rejected.

Carolyn Hicks, Joppa: Why didn't HB 1334 clear the Senate? It had [more than] 50 sponsors in the House. It would have put a 5 percent cap on electric rate increases andphased them in over the years. We wouldn't be "paying now or paying later." The [governor's] plan isn't any good!

Nitkin: The General Assembly passed several bills related to utilities, including a measure to give lawmakers veto power over a proposed Constellation-FPL merger, and a measure to dissolve the current PSC and reconstitute it with a majority of members approved by the Assembly. Those bills were acknowledged even by supporters to be leverage that lawmakers could use in negotiations with BGE to delay or lower rate increases.

The governor vetoed the bills, and the Assembly adjourned April 10 without overriding them. Reinstituting rate caps was discussed, but the company and many lawmakers acknowledged that caps would affect the company's finances and could lead to financial instability.

BGE has already held an auction to buy electricity supply for next year, and says its costs translate into a 72 percent increase for a typical customer. So, a 5 percent cap would appear to be a real hit for the company.

Penny, Baltimore: I would like to know all the names of the legislators that voted for the "deregulation" bill in 1999. Could you please provide this information, or direct me to where I might receive it?

Nitkin: This is the answer to the same question I provided last week -- but because interest seems to be high, I'll also cut and paste the vote tallies (which includes just last names of lawmakers, without party affiliation or district information). Please also note that there has been significant turnover in the Assembly between 1999 and today.

From last week: 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.

The votes (on the Senate bill; an identical House version -- HB 703 -- also passed):

SB 300 Conference Committee Report, Sen. Miller et al Electric Utility Industry Restructuring

On third reading, 34 Yeas, 13 Nays, 0 Excused, 0 Not Voting, 0 Excused (absent).

  • Voting Yea -- 34. Mr. President, DeGrange, Hogan, Madden, Neall, Astle, Dorman, Hollinger, McCabe, Roesser, Baker, Ferguson, Hooper, McFadden, Ruben, Blount, Hafer, Jacobs, Middleton, Stoltzfus, Bromwell, Haines, Jimeno, Mitchell, Stone, Colburn, Harris, Kasemeyer, Mooney, Teitelbaum, Currie, Hoffman, Lawlah, Munson.
  • Voting Nay -- 13. Collins, Dyson, Frosh, Kelley, Van Hollen, Conway, Exum, Green, Pinsky, Della, Forehand, Hughes, Sfikas.SB 300 Conference Committee Report, Sen. Miller et al Electric Utility Industry RestructuringOn third reading and final passage, 95 Yeas, 34 Nays, 2 Excused, 7 Not Voting, 3 Excused (absent).
  • Voting Yea -- 95. Speaker Taylor, Cryor, Guns, Linton, Redmer, Amedori, D'Amato, Hammen, Love, Riley, Arnick, C. Davis, Harrison, Malone, Rosenberg, W. Baker, D. Davis, Hecht, Marriott, Rudolph, Baldwin, DeCarlo, Heller, McClenahan, Rzepkowski, Bartlett, Donoghue, Hill, McIntosh, Schisler, Barve, Doory, Hixson, McKee, Shank, Boschert, Eckardt, Hurson, Minnick, Sher, Boutin, Edwards, Hutchins, Mitchell, Slade, Bozman, Elliott, James, Mohorovic, Snodgrass, Brinkley, Finifter, Kach, Montague, Sophocleus, Brown, Flanagan, J. Kelly, D. Murphy, Stern, Burns, Franchot, K. Kelly, O'Donnell, Stocksdale, Busch, Fulton, Kittleman, Owings, Stull, Cadden, Getty, Klausmeier, Parrott, Vallario, Campbell, Giannetti Klima, Petzold, Walkup, Carlson, Glassman, Krysiak, Ports, Weir, Clagett, Gordon, La Vay, Proctor, Wood, Conway, Greenip, Leopold, Rawlings, Zirkin.
  • Voting Nay -- 34. Baker, R. Cole, Goldwater, Mandel, Paige, Barkley, Conroy, Griffith, McHale, Phillips, Benson, Dembrow, Grosfeld, Menes, Pitkin, Billings, Dobson, Healey, Moe, Rosso, Bobo, Dypski, Howard, Morhaim, Swain, Bronrott, Frush, Hubbard, Nathan-Pulliam, Turner, Cane, Gladden, Kagan, Oaks.
  • Not Voting -- 7, Branch, A. Jones, Kirk, Valderrama, Hubers, Jones, V. Patterson.
  • Excused From Voting -- 2. Dewberry, Shriver.
  • Excused (absent) -- 3. Kopp, Palumbo, Pendergrass.J, Florida: The Sun needs to do a better job of explaining to its readers the details of the settlement BGE and Ehrlich reached -- if consumers understand that if they "opt in," they will be paying interest on the deferred portion of their bill, and specifically tell themthe interest rate they are charged. No resident I spoke with understands their options. Once they understand their options, I believe they will be better-informed on this issue, and I believe they will distrust BGE and Ehrlich -- like I distrust them.Nitkin: The BGE rate deal is very complex, and I believe The Sun has doneas well as any news organization in trying to get to the truth. Reporter Andy Green's article last week showed that even the Ehrlich administration may not have fully understood all the numbers when announcing the deal -- as evidenced by the discrepancy in the "fee" associated with delaying the increase. (The administration said it was $15 for a typical bill, while BGE says $19). On Friday, the PSC announced it had approved the plan -- but haseliminated the 5 percent annual interest charge, which was about $1 a month. BGE is complaining about the removal of the charge, and wants the PSC to reconsider the decision.Andy Carpenter, Boston: We can assume [that Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller told you the truth when he said, "I never solicited 10 cents from a utility company."In your opinion, as a seasoned journalist who is used to political parsing, does Miller's statement stand on its own merit? Or, did the Senate president mean that he never solicited 10 cents from a utility company?Nitkin: A national [political action committee] to elected Democratic state lawmakers -- chaired for years by Miller -- received more than $100,000 over three years from utility companies. Whether Miller actually called up company executives to request the money is interesting, but not the most important fact, in my view. The money was received by thecommittee, and used for its mission.Utility interests donated to the PAC, as they did to many other candidates and groups, to make sure their issues got heard by executive and legislative branches of government acrossthe country.SchoolsAida Abiog, Baltimore: What are the seven Baltimore middle schools that are supposedly [to be taken over by] the state?Nitkin: In March, the state proposed new management of four high schoolsand seven middle schools in Baltimore, but the legislature passed a one-year moratorium on the move. The seven middle schools are Calverton, Chinquapin, Diggs-Johnson, Dr. Roland N. Patterson, Hamilton, Thurgood Marshall and William H. Lemmel.Billye Jo Jackson, North East: The news and newspapers are filled with many needs for Maryland schools and programs for children. How can Governor Ehrlich and [State Superintendent] Nancy [S.] Grasmick justify an increased funding of $1.5 million to NorthBay Environmental Camp, a nonprofit organization, in North East for sixth-graders? This $1.5 million does not include at least $300,000 from each Maryland school attending.NorthBay has been leased 97 exclusive acres and 350 nonexclusive acres, including a half-mile of waterfront [property] in Elk Neck State Park for $1 a year for 80 years. NorthBay pays notaxes and yet rents to other organizations and clubs, while retaining all funds. To my knowledge, nothing in the lease states our tax dollars should be used for NorthBay, so how can Ehrlich and Grasmick justify any funds being given to NorthBay in their fiscal 2007 Maryland State Department of Education budget?Nitkin: The NorthBay project was proposed under the Glendening administration and approved under the Ehrlich administration. Supporters of the project say it provides a valuable education experience for children, but critics say that a private group should not be allowed exclusive use of state property.NorthBay is the creation of the Erickson Foundation, founded by the Erickson family, which runs nursing homes in Maryland. The Ericksons have been political donors to Ehrlich, as well as to Democratic candidates.BiasTim, Millington: David, my only question is: When are you going to be a bit more balanced in your reporting? As I've asked twice before, where is the article about other leaders' wives? Katie O'Malley would be a good start. A sitting judge, who happens to be the [state attorney general's] daughter and the [Baltimore] mayor's wife, gets to have direct influence over conviction and dismissal rates in the city that can help her husband and hurt an opponent, [such as Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C.] Jessamy.Nitkin: I recently wrote about first lady Kendel Ehrlich because of her visible recent appearances, notably appearing by her husband's side during an announcement about BGE electricity rates. Many political observers expect to see Kendel Ehrlich appearing prominently on the campaign trail, so it seemed to be a good time to explore her role. If Mayor O'Malley is the Democratic nominee, much media attention will likely focus on his wife. Judge O'Malley is one of 27 district court judges in Baltimore, and she does handle criminal cases.James, Crofton: Isn't the responsibility of a "journalist" to be as objective as possible in the reporting of public affairs? If your answer to this is "yes," then explain to me why yourself and other news reporters at The Sun behave more like political partisans and attack dogs than journalists?We're not stupid out here -- we can see the bias in the wording of the headlines, what stories are selected for "upper-fold" display in the machine racks, and your refusal to turn the spotlight on Democratic Party misbehavior with the same intensity and fervor that you do the Republicans. Wouldn't it be better if you simply resigned from The Sun and took a full-time, salaried position with the Maryland Democratic Party?Nitkin: Journalists strive to be fair, balanced and accurate -- as well as perceptive, aggressive in the pursuit of truth, and sometimes provocative (in the sense of telling readers something they may not know). Sometimes the information in stories, by its very nature, may inflame readers' passions.In some cases, events demand coverage. In other instances, journalists make a decision to pursue stories. When writing stories, they make choices of what verbs to use, which sources to quote first and how a piece is organized. In doing so, they typically attempt to produce a balanced story.The news staff of The Sun is comprised of more than 300 people. The writersof the articles do not write their own headlines. That's the job of copy editors. Nor do they decide where the stories run. That is a decision made by a panel of the highest-ranking editors, and those decisions evolve through the course of the day and evening.The Sun has also aggressively written about Democratic politicians throughout the years, from exposés on former state Sen. Larry Young, to Tommy Bromwell, to former Gov. Parris N. Glendening positioning himself for chancellor of the University System Board of Regents, to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's handling of juvenile justice and boot camps, to [former] Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's private businesses and their intersection with his public job. I'm proud to have been involved in several of those stories.As for your final question -- I like my current job very much, thanks.
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