Energy rates
Laura Elion, Annapolis: If, according to [a recent Sun] article (and a person attached to the Public Service Commission), there are 81 licensed suppliers ... why does the PSC's Web site list only three (BGE, WGES and Pepco)?

Nitkin: I haven't begun shopping for a provider myself, but some companies are beginning to express interest in providing residential service in Maryland. The PSC's deregulation information Web site says that 23 companies are licensed to provide power in the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. service area. But the vast majority of them are not yet marketing themselves as service providers. To be sure, all observers agree that there is no true residential competition for electricity in Maryland today.

Nikki, Perry Hall: So, is this thing over? Did [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] lie to us all when he said the 72 percent rise "will not stand?" Are we stuck with this pitiful, pathetic plan that just stretches out the pain while energy executives roll in cash and smile with glee that they've held Maryland hostage?

They presented a plan, said take it or else, and Ehrlich rolled right over like a trained puppy after barking a little bit. Now, they'll get their merger -- so Constellation gets everything they want pretty much when they want it, makes record profits and all we get are interest charges. Is there any chance the 72 percent increase really won't stand, or should we resign ourselves to it now?

Nitkin: If the courts and the PSC agree that the rate deferral plan negotiated by Ehrlich takes effect, those who choose to enroll in the plan will see first-year increases on average of 19.4 percent. But rates will rise to market rates in three years. The city of Baltimore is suing to have the PSC reconsider the deferral plan, however, so the situation is a bit cloudy at present. Additionally, members of the General Assembly continue to talk about a special session on utility issues, although there is no clear consensus on what lawmakers could do that could lower rates.

BGE residential electricity rates are still scheduled to rise an average of 72 percent on July 1, and budget billing customers have already begun paying the increase.

George, Baltimore: In a previous question from Dave in Bel Air you pointed out that all Republicans in the General Assembly in 1999 voted for the deregulation. What about the Democrats? Did they all votes for it as well?

Nitkin: Democrats were divided on the 1999 vote. Legislative leaders voted for the deregulation plan, but many African-American Democratic lawmakers and some of the Assembly's most liberal members voted against it.

Barry, Baltimore: In my opinion, a special session of the legislature needs to be called in order to re-establish leverage on BGE. A threat of a bill to replace the PSC members and to reconsider the merger would certainly create this leverage. Local leaders are blaming their leadership for an inability to come up with a plan and for not calling for a special session.

It seems abundantly clear that Senate President [Thomas V.] Mike Miller and, to a lesser degree, [House Speaker] Michael [E.] Busch are primarily being blamed for the BGE debacle. This blame for the House and Senate leaders will only intensify as BGE bill increases arrive. What are your thoughts on this strategy and what chances do Busch and Miller have for re-election?

Nitkin: The re-election chances of Busch and Miller are strong. They are popular in their districts and effective campaigners, with plenty of money to spend. As for a special session, if lawmakers reconvene without a clear plan and are reduced to bickering, they will look ineffective in the public eye during an election year. Lawmakers want to avoid this, so they are proceeding cautiously. The bills you mention were passed by the legislature this year and vetoed by the governor. It does not seem that passing them again would have an immediate impact on rates.

Elections
Mike, Baltimore: With all the political bickering between Republicans and Democrats, do you see any potential of having more third-party candidates than usual elected to office this November?

Nitkin: Having a single third-party candidate elected would be more than usual. The most visible third-party candidate has been Kevin Zeese, who is running for the U.S. Senate on a "fusion" ticket of three minor parties, including the Green Party and the Libertarian Party. He is a strong debater, but his chances of winning are poor. Accepting your term, political bickering (some would call it healthy debate over agendas and philosophies) is just as likely to keep voters away from the ballot box as it is to help elect minor-party candidates.

Judy, Sykesville: All I've heard about the early voting law is the political rhetoric. Can you please provide just the facts? Who can vote? Where can we vote? When can we vote? As I have never been asked for identification when I vote, how will they know if I've voted only once? Will they know if I vote early, then vote again at my regular polling place on Election Day?

Nitkin: Under early voting, any voter can vote in his or her assigned precinct or in an early voting precinct. (Only voters registered in a political party can vote in that party's primary -- there are no "open primaries" in Maryland.)

Under state law (SB 478 of 2005), Baltimore City and the following counties will have at least three early voting precincts: Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's. All others will have at least one.

A subsequent law, passed this year (HB 1368), spells out more details. The 2006 law lists the specific locations of the precincts in seven largest jurisdictions:

  • Anne Arundel County: Brooklyn Park Senior Center; West County Library in Odenton; American Legion Post No. 141 in Annapolis.

  • Baltimore: Morgan State University; Coppin State University; Du Burns Recreation Center.

  • Baltimore County: Randallstown Library; Towson University; Essex Library.

  • Harford County: Aberdeen Branch Library; Harford County Government Building; Joppa Branch Library.

  • Howard County: East Columbia Library in Owen Brown; Miller Branch Library in Ellicott City; Savage Branch Library in Laurel.

  • Montgomery County: Germantown Public Library; Silver Spring Public Library; Rockville City Hall.

  • Prince George's County: Upper Malboro Library; Harmony Hall Regional Center; Hyattsville Public Library.

    The law states that "each polling place shall be equipped with a computer device that contains a record of all registered voters in the county and that is capable of being networked to other polling place computer devices."

    This is called an electronic poll book, and law requires state funding of these computer books -- which are designed to make sure that voters don't cast multiple votes, either fraudulently or by error. The law does not require voters to show identification. But the e-poll books will tell elections officials when you voted.

    Early-voting precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. beginning the Tuesday before the primary or general election through the Saturday before the election.

    Donald Brady, Columbia: When he was the Democratic governor of Maryland, William Donald Schaefer went on national TV and endorsed Republican George H. W. Bush over fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. Did Schaefer also back George W. Bush over Al Gore or John Kerry?

    Nitkin: According to The Sun's archives, Schaefer endorsed Kerry in 2004. We made no mention of him making an endorsement in the 2000 race.

    Kathryn Parke, Baltimore: [I am] hoping you can explain the emergency legislation SB 129. Was this really rushed through to prevent Zeese from running a fusion candidacy?

    Nitkin: The legislation passed with heavy majorities in both chambers and removes a requirement that minor party candidates collect 1 percent of the signatures of those registered in the party -- such as the Green Party -- to appear on the ballot. Zeese believes the bill was aimed at him, but I'm not sure that's the case. It was requested by the State Board of Elections, and is in response to a 2003 court decision brought by the Green Party. Here's a description from a legislative analyst's review of the bill, which includes some background information:

    "In 2003 the Maryland Court of Appeals, in Maryland Green Party v. Maryland Board of Elections, 377 Md. 127, 832 A.2d 214 (2003), held that requiring nonprincipal political party candidates to complete a nominating petition violates the equal protection component of Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. According to the court, the State's interest in requiring nonprincipal political party candidates to obtain the signatures of 1 [percent] of eligible voters, which was to show a sufficient amount of support for the candidate to avoid confusion and overloading a ballot with 'frivolous' candidates, was satisfied by the initial party-forming requirement of 10,000 signatures alone, and the 'additional burden' of two petitioning requirements … [was] not justifiable."

    So the "official" explanation of the need for the bill is to conform with a 2003 court ruling.

    John, Baltimore County: I see that the governor's official state Web site frequently has photos of him with people wearing "Vote for Ehrlich" shirts and stickers. Is it legal for an elected official to use a publicly funded Web site to display campaign material?

    Nitkin: This issue frequently arises, and the truth is that there is a large gray area for what is appropriate political activity for current office holders.

    Members of the General Assembly must abide by a law that they can't use public resources for political activities, said Robert Zarnoch, an assistant attorney general who is counsel to the Assembly. But the governor is not covered by a similar law, Zarnoch said.

    Several years ago, the Washington Post sued then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, in part to get access to telephone logs that would have shown whether he was making telephone calls to raise campaign money from the governor's mansion. A judge determined that fund-raising calls could not take place in state offices, but that the mansion was akin to the governor's home, and calls from there were allowed.

    The governor is accompanied almost everywhere he goes by a photographer, as well as executive protection. Photographs are then uploaded to the governor's Web site. Often times, official events morph into campaign-type events. For example, photographs on the Web site show the governor attending the Towsontown Festival this year. Some photographs show him standing with patrons of the event; others show him sitting at the "Ehrlich for Governor" booth, surrounded by campaign banners.

    The attorney general's office has reviewed the governor's Web site, and has determined that photographs there do not violate a new requirement written into the state's budget bill that prohibits a state elected official from appearing in state-funded advertising after July 1.

    Zarnoch says that "the idea of just having photographs on the Web site is not the same as a clip-out coupon saying 'Send money to … [the campaign].'"

    Zarnoch also notes that visitors looking at photographs on the governor's official Web site are likely to be supporters and won't be offended by the images.

    Bottom line: "I don't think it violates anything, just the pictures," Zarnoch said.

    Personnel probe
    Bill Thies, Ellicott City: As someone whose job was eliminated by the Democrat-controlled legislature in 2005, why is there no discussion of the Democrats' involvement in indirectly firing folks for political reasons by you or anyone else? I have asked you this before with no reply. Reference HB 150/2005, page 60, lines 15-31.

    Nitkin: The bill you cite is the state budget bill for the fiscal year that ends June 30. The section you cite is the following: "Further provided that the agency shall use its discretion in selecting the 11 positions to be abolished from the list of the following 13.5 position numbers (representing the most recently filled positions). The Position Identification Numbers (PIN) of the specific positions from which the agency shall select 11 positions to be deleted are 004892, 007901, 903575, 900120, 889599, 900032, 903688, 082917, 889709, 009014, 010334, 012631, 011746, and 061945. The amount listed below, being funds associated with these positions, shall be restricted and may be used only to increase the State subsidy for employee and retiree health insurance."

    The General Assembly identified employees it wanted to eliminate from the state transportation department, and directed that the savings be used to fund health care.