Editor's note: With the election season heating up -- and with it, the workload increasing for those of us who cover politics -- the time has unfortunately come to set some limits on my weekly Q&A. I greatly enjoy hearing what's on your mind and want to keep the forum going. But from here on out, I'll be selecting five questions to answer each week. Hopefully, you'll still find the answers valuable. Please keep reading and writing.

Energy rates
Dave, Bel Air: I'm confused about the deregulation issue involving [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s] proposed electricity rate hike. The Democratic legislature passed the regulation legislation in 1999. Now that it is due to expire, how can they argue that BGE shouldn't have the right to increase the price of electricity? Seems to me that unless the state legislature passed an extension or new law, they can't prevent BGE from raising rates. Seems like the Democrats want it both ways and now want to blame [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] and the [Public Service Commission]. I don't understand their logic.

Nitkin: Caps on electricity rates were adopted by the Public Service Commission, not the General Assembly, as a phase-in to a deregulated environment.

Democratic lawmakers aren't arguing that BGE doesn't have the right to raise the price of electricity. They are questioning whether the 72 percent rate increase is justified, and whether the current PSC -- dominated by Ehrlich appointees -- could have done more to make the increase easier for consumers to handle. Many states that passed deregulation laws in the 1990s have realized that the expectations of lower prices are not becoming reality. So lawmakers in Maryland and elsewhere are trying to figure out what they can do to fix some of the mistakes that were made in the past.

Carroll Kehne, Stevensville: How come there are no discussions on all of Maryland's electricity rate increases? We on the Eastern Shore are being given a 35 percent increase, which is also excessive, and no one cares.

Nitkin: Rate caps for other power companies, such as Delmarva, came off two years ago, and increases are also hitting customers in those service areas. BGE is the largest supplier of residential electricity in Maryland, and the caps are coming off this summer. That's why the situation is getting attention now.

Charles, Laurel: On what basis did [Del.] Anthony Brown's guarantee that his campaign will win Montgomery County warrant a story? What journalistic standard makes an uncertain prediction of the future headline news?

Nitkin: Sun reporter Doug Donovan accompanied Del. Anthony Brown to a volunteer coordinating event in Montgomery County as part of reporting on the campaign. At the event, Brown said: "We will win Montgomery County, and I guarantee it." The statement was included in a story on page 5 of the Maryland section, and was newsworthy for two reasons. First, it was a remarkable claim, given that Montgomery County Executive [Douglas M.] Duncan is running for governor, and is favored to win his home county. Second, we published the statement so that Brown's comments would be on the record, and verifiable after the primary election in September.

Gary, Dundalk: How sincere do you think [Anne Arundel County Executive] Janet Owens is when she states that she is not entering the comptroller race in order to help [Comptroller William Donald] Schaefer by splitting the anti-Schaefer vote? What about the comptroller position would be attractive to a soon-to-be-former county executive? Could she be using it to gain exposure for a future run at a statewide [office]?

Nitkin: Janet Owens is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election. She considered running for U.S. Senate and for Congress, and finally decided to enter the comptroller's race, challenging incumbent William Donald Schaefer. Del. Peter Franchot is also in the primary. The comptroller's office is a statewide position, and is one of three votes on the Board of Public Works. I tend to believe that Owens is running because she wants the job, not as a favor or an assist to Schaefer.

Early voting
Milton Sugai, Franklin, Tenn.: No question. Here in Tennessee we do have early voting and I have found it to be convenient and voter-friendly. I lived in Maryland for 17 years and found voting to be very inconvenient. I am glad Maryland will have early voting.

Nitkin: Thanks for the comment.

Ed Sherman, Ellicott City: Why do [Senate President Thomas V. Mike] Miller and [Governor] Ehrlich insist on granting slots licenses outright to Magna [Entertainment Corp.] instead of auctioning them to the highest bidder? Wouldn't this produce the maximum revenue for the state?

Nitkin: None of the slots bills under discussion would grant all slots licenses outright to Magna Entertainment Corp., owners of Pimlico and Laurel tracks. The governor's plan from 2005 authorized slots at four track and two non-track locations. Two of the four tracks would have been Laurel and Pimlico, and the other two would be in Prince George's County (Rosecroft) and a proposed new track in Allegany County. The Senate altered the bill and stripped out specific locations.

But you are generally correct: Under most scenarios, Magna would get at least one slots license under the argument that they already own gambling venues and that horse racing needs assistance.

The main reason why is that horse racing interests have been lobbying heavily for slots in Annapolis for years, and have given campaign donations and hired skilled representatives to make sure their voices are heard. Some economists argue that an auction of slots licenses would determine their true market value, and that by not holding an auction, the state is giving away a huge benefit.

Advocates of horse racing say that versions of a slots plan protect against this by requiring tracks to pay a relatively small license fee and to commit to making capital improvements. Here's part of a legislative analysis of the governor's 2005 slots bill:

"Applicants for horse track VLT licenses must submit a $5 million application fee by October 1, 2005. The race track in Allegany County applicant has until October 1, 2006 to apply and pay an application fee of $1.5 million. In addition, applicants must also invest at least $150 million in construction and related costs; provide at least 500 full-time jobs (the Allegany track is required to invest $43 million and provide at least 150 jobs); and except for the Allegany track offer at least 15% of equity investment to minority investors if the licensee holds one license and 10% if the licensee holds two or more licenses."


Bryan, Olney: Why did The Baltimore Sun bury the firing of [Mayor Martin] O'Malley's campaign manager? Why was there no mention of his involvement in the Maryland Democratic Party during the MD4Bush saga -- particularly when he called the individual [MD4B] a 'hero' when the state party issued a strong contradictory condemnation of the person's actions?

Nitkin: I think the story was appropriately reported and played. Josh White, the new O'Malley manager, was formerly executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party. There is no evidence that White was involved in anything having to do with MD4Bush.