David Nitkin on state politics issues

BGEJoe, Towson: What benefit will we see if Florida Power & Lighttakes over [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.]? I believe that they are in a lot of debt from last year'shurricane season and I would like to know how they can purchase BGE.

Nitkin: Sun business columnist Jay Hancock is the residentexpert on this. He addressed the topic in a May 17 column that is worthreading.

Janice Likens, Perry Hall: Can you compare the Constellation Energy fiasco withthe Blue Cross Blue Shield foiled sale to a "for-profit" healthinsurance company? How are they similar/different?

Nitkin: There are some similarities and some differences between thetwo transactions. CareFirst was and is a not-for-profit health careprovider formed with a mission of providing health care to state residents.As part of the proposed conversion to a for-profit corporation, Wellpointproposed paying $1 billion to the state of Maryland, an attractive figureat a time of budget shortfalls. With the Constellation/FPL merger of twofor-profit companies, no money is going into the coffers of the state.

But here are some macro-level similarities: both the health care andutility industries are heavily regulated by the state government; bothtransactions are complex and the details are beyond the reach of mostlawmakers and members of the public; and both deals are drawing muchskepticism from residents and policy-makers. Here's another similarity:Constellation is attractive in part because of a deregulated energyenvironment. Maryland passed its deregulation law in 1999, at the urging ofutility companies -- part of a national trend. The Wellpoint/CareFirstmerger was proposed in about 2001, also as part of a national trend ofconverting non-for-profit "Blues" to for-profit companies. With the benefitof hindsight, both trends look like they did not serve average consumerswell, but did make corporations and their officers and shareholderswealthy.

Jonathan Pitkin, Bowie: Did [Senate President Thomas V.] Mike Miller really flub the eleventh-hour deal on the electric rates, or was the majority of the Senate sincerely too upsetabout the last-minute deal to wholeheartedly support it? There are nowinners here, are there?

Nitkin: You've hit on two points here that both have some truthto them. The General Assembly did not approve a plan to defer part of a 72percent BGE rate increase during the final minutes of the legislativesession because the plan -- which had passed the House hours earlier duringthe Assembly's last day -- did not pass the Senate.

Having watched Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller exercise hispolitical skills for years, I am loath to say he flubbed this. Miller was alead sponsor of the 1999 deregulation plan; he knew the risks of waitinguntil the final hours to pass a complex bill that many of his colleaguesdid not like.

There is a distinct possibility that he did not want the deferralplan to pass -- which is not a flub, but a political calculation.

By not acting, the Assembly shifted the burden back to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. -- who then negotiated his own deferral plan that has been thesubject of intensive criticism, as well as a lawsuit by political rivalBaltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

But there is also no doubt that many senators did not like manyelements of the plan presented to them on the final day of the session:Leading senators such as Republican E.J. Pipkin wanted to recoup the costscharged to customers to compensate BGE for an anticipated decline in valueof power plants under deregulation that has not occurred.

Others, such as Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat,wanted more environmental protections. So, even if Miller truly wanted thebill to pass (and you may know the Annapolis joke that Mike Miller can get29 votes to burn down the State House if need be) there were enoughquestions from key allies to put the legislation at risk.

Mary Lewis, Baltimore: When the General Assembly agreed to deregulation in1999, did they anticipate anything like this happening? Did they even havean alternative plan to lessen the blow? Couldn't something been done beforethis? Why is everyone now jumping on the bandwagon pointing fingers, filinglawsuits and protesting? Isn't this a day late and a dollar short?

Nitkin: Lawmakers did not anticipate the current situation whenthey approved a deregulation plan in 1999. A main part of the reason we aregoing through this crisis is because of rate caps set by the Public ServiceCommission on BGE rates, which are coming off on July 1. Specifics about thecaps are not contained in the 1999 bill -- they were set by the PSC in2000, after negotiations between the company and the people's counsel. Itseems to have escaped the attention of the PSC and lawmakers that the capswould be coming off in an election year, and that the cost of electricitywould be rising so much. Lawmakers thought it would go down. What you call"jumping on the bandwagon" and "pointing fingers" can also be looked at asa way to solve a problem that was unforeseen seven years ago.

ElectionSteve Goodman, Ridgely: I have very little confidence in the integrity ofMaryland's election system. The extended voting days and absentee ballotscombined with being unable to check IDs clearly encourage multiple votecasting that can't be checked until after the election. And the touchscreen voting machines are prone to tampering and incapable of providing apaper record of votes cast. What is being done to safeguard the results ofthe next election?

Nitkin: You raise some legitimate questions, but have cast themin the worst light possible, reaching conclusions that I think areunreasonable. Early voting -- having select polling places open five daysbefore the election to encourage turnout and eliminate long lines that candiscourage voters -- is in place in 35 other states. The system has not beenshown to "encourage multiple vote casting." Casting multiple votes is acrime. The people who would do it would most likely be caught andprosecuted. The state is in the process of buying "e-poll books" that wouldcreate an electronic voter registration database and keep a record of whenpeople voted and where. Touchscreen voting machines are not "prone totampering." Security experts have found flaws in the hardware and softwarethat could be exploited by hackers, but the risk is deemed very low,especially in light of the security procedures that are already in place(e.g., sealing the machines after they have been delivered to polling placesbut before they have been "booted up"). In my experience, electionsofficials at the state and local level are hard-working professionals whoare doing all they can to create a safe, secure accurate election.

Hardy, Reisterstown: David, it seems that when you answer questions aboutthe early voting you leave out a very important part of the legislation.Not only does a voter not have to produce ID, but it is specificallyprohibited by the new law for an election judge to ask to see ID, isn't it?Why is this? How easy would it be for me to say I was someone else, cast avote for who I favor and then do that same thing again with another name ofa bona fide registered voter in another location? The unfortunate voter(s) whose name(s) I took to cast a vote(s) would not be able to vote,because it would appear in the e-book that he/she already voted, right? Howwould they ever get that kind of mess straightened out? Also, aren't weplacing a lot of faith in the e-books functioning properly? This wholething just seems like an awful mess.

Nitkin: There are no ID requirements in the early voting laws,according to Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator with the Maryland StateBoard of Elections. Current state law -- unaltered by recent legislation --holds that voters give their name and address at polling places, and thenvote. They do not now have to show IDs.

The scenario you raise -- a fraudulent voter going to a polling place,saying they are someone else and then voting -- could happen under thecurrent voting system as well as under early voting.

But it has not happened. "To my knowledge, we haven't had cases ofthat," Goldstein said.

If you go to your polling place and the election judge says thatyou've already voted -- because someone claimed to be you -- you could thenfill out a provisional paper ballot. It would then be up to the local boardof elections to determine whether your ballot should be counted, Goldsteinsaid.

Steve, Fells Point: Any new polling data to share with us? The ads by [Montgomery County Executive Douglas M.] Duncan are effective, and the latest one on Ehrlich's vote to repeal the assaultweapons ban is generating some additional coverage for him. I wonder whetherDuncan is moving up in the polls. And if [Democratic Del. Peter] Franchot is continuing to close on[Comptroller William Donald] Schaefer.

Nitkin: I have no new polling data to share, but The Sun will bedoing polling during the election season.

EhrlichSpike, Baltimore: David, how is Governor Ehrlich viewed in his ability towork with Democrats, compared to Republican governors in Democratic states,such as Gov. [George] Pataki in New York and Gov. [Mitt] Romney in Massachusetts? For instance, Romney wasable to work with a legislature dominated by Democrats to pass a majorhealth insurance reform bill. Can Ehrlich point to any such bipartisanachievement?

Nitkin: Friction between the Republican governor of Maryland and theDemocrat-controlled General Assembly is a hallmark of the Ehrlichadministration. There are a very few issues that the governor can point toas having successfully negotiated with the Assembly to see to passage. Onewould be the so-called flush tax, a $30 yearly fee imposed on sewage andseptic to pay for treatment plant upgrades. On this issue, the governorbasically gave in to demands from Democrats that the fee be extended toseptic owners, who are in rural areas and make up the governor's base ofsupport. The administration wanted just sewage customers to pay.

The list is much longer of ideas that the governor couldn't getthrough the Assembly, notably slot machine gambling. The preeminent exampleof the governor not working with the Assembly was in December 2004, when heforced lawmakers to cancel holiday plans and return to Annapolis for aspecial session on medical malpractice reform for the week between NewYear's and Christmas. The Assembly came up with a proposal that includedending a 2 percent HMO tax exemption to help fund doctors' insurancepremiums. Ehrlich considered this a new tax, and vetoed the bill that hecalled lawmakers back to pass. The Assembly overrode his veto.

The governor would acknowledge that the legislature has been aproblem for him; one of his major campaign themes is asking voters tore-elect him and elect more Republicans to the Assembly so that his planswill pass. Many Democrats counter that the reason the governor has not hadmuch legislative success is a combination of his unwillingness tocompromise and his apparent distaste or lack of interest in the nuances anddetails of policy or legislation.

An additional election theme is emerging of the governor claimingcredit for legislation that was passed by the Democrat-controlled Assemblyover his objections, such as stem-cell research and tougher emissionsrestrictions on power plants. The governor's aides worked to killlegislation in both areas. When it passed despite their objections, thegovernor claimed that the bills were similar to regulations or budget itemshe initially proposed, and agreed to sign the legislation. The sponsors ofthe legislation were appalled.

Anne Ray, Easton: You claim The SUN is not biased. Just read this story by Jennifer Skalka and tell me that was not biased reporting. The only person she quoted in the story gave an anti-Ehrlichcomment. Now, Mr. Nitkin, at a Chamber of Commerce gathering, do you reallybelieve no one there supported the governor?

Nitkin: You are referring to a story about a gubernatorialcandidates' forum at which Mayor Martin O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan spoke. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not appear. Most of the relatively short story(which ran inside the Maryland section) was made up of quotes from themayor and the county executive, who were critical of the governor (notsurprising, since they are running against him). The story then included aresponse from the governor's office. At the end of the story, reporterJennifer Skalka included some comments from an audience member she spokewith. Jennifer Skalka is a fair, balanced, insightful reporter and she isto be commended for including "real people" in the story, rather than justrelying on politicians' comments, as some other media members did whocovered the event. Were there people at the forum who supported thegovernor? I'm sure there were. Is The Sun "biased" because the audiencemember we happened to talk to and quote gave an anti-Ehrlich comment? Noway.

O'MalleyBryan, Olney: Mayor O'Malley likes to say that his grade schools havemade significant progress. However, if not one middle school is passing inmath or English proficiency, then how can he honestly claim that the systembefore the middle school (grade school) is actually achieving anything?

Nitkin: Mayor O'Malley cites test scores from the Maryland SchoolAssessment tests. Here's part of a Sun article from June 2005, the mostrecent release date for the scores:

"Pupils in grades three, five and six fared better in reading, makinggains that outpaced the rate of improvement statewide. The passing rateamong the city's fifth-graders rose eight points to 58 percent, forexample, while the statewide fifth-grade rate increased six points to 74percent.

Math scores rose in every grade tested -- three through eight -- but not asquickly as in the rest of the state.

The rate of third-graders who passed math rose by two points to 56percent, while the statewide rate increased by five points to 77 percent.

Although seventh- and eighth-graders did not lose ground in math,they gained very little.

The passing rate in each grade went up by half a percentage point --to 18 and 19 percent, respectively -- and continued to lag far behind thestate average of more than 50 percent.

Last year, by comparison, eighth-graders in the city improved by sevenpercentage points on the math test."

Jay, Dundalk: David, when will we see a fact vs. fictioncomparison of Mayor O'Malley's "accomplishments"?

Nitkin: During the course of the campaign, The Sun will examine indetail the records of candidates for governor and other offices.

Luke, Salisbury: I enjoyed the article aboutO'Malley's Irish heritage. It was very informative and balanced. In thespirit of The Sun's long history of objective journalism, when can weexpect a similar piece regarding Governor Ehrlich's heritage? I am alsocurious as to whether African-American eyes (and wallets) are smiling on[Lt. Gov. Michael S.] Steele.

Nitkin: Most of the fundraising efforts for Steele, a candidate forSenate, are coming from national Republican figures such as President Bush;his father, the former president; Karl Rove; Vice President Dick Cheney andothers.

For a piece on the governor's heritage, I invite you to review thisinformative story by Michael Dresser, which ran after Governor Ehrlich called the concept of multiculturalism "bunk" and "crap."

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