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David Nitkin on state politics issues

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 mindand 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 ratesDave, Bel Air: I'm confused about the deregulationissue involving [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s] proposed electricity rate hike. The Democraticlegislature passed the regulation legislation in 1999. Now that it is dueto expire, how can they argue that BGE shouldn't have the right toincrease the price of electricity? Seems to me that unless the statelegislature passed an extension or new law, they can't prevent BGE fromraising rates. Seems like the Democrats want it both ways and now want toblame [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 ServiceCommission, not the General Assembly, as a phase-in to a deregulatedenvironment.

Democratic lawmakers aren't arguing that BGE doesn't have the right toraise the price of electricity. They are questioning whether the 72 percentrate increase is justified, and whether the current PSC -- dominated byEhrlich appointees -- could have done more to make the increase easier forconsumers to handle. Many states that passed deregulation laws in the 1990shave realized that the expectations of lower prices are not becomingreality. So lawmakers in Maryland and elsewhere are trying to figure outwhat 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 givena 35 percent increase, which is also excessive, and no one cares.

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

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

Nitkin: Sun reporter Doug Donovan accompanied Del. Anthony Brown to avolunteer coordinating event in Montgomery County as part of reporting onthe campaign. At the event, Brown said: "We will win Montgomery County, andI guarantee it." The statement was included in a story on page 5 of theMaryland section, and was newsworthy for two reasons. First, it was aremarkable claim, given that Montgomery County Executive [Douglas M.] Duncan isrunning for governor, and is favored to win his home county. Second, wepublished 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 beattractive to a soon-to-be-former county executive? Could she be using itto gain exposure for a future run at a statewide [office]?

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

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

Nitkin: Thanks for the comment.

SlotsEd 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 slotslicenses outright to Magna Entertainment Corp., owners of Pimlico andLaurel tracks. The governor's plan from 2005 authorized slots at four trackand two non-track locations. Two of the four tracks would have been Laureland Pimlico, and the other two would be in Prince George's County(Rosecroft) and a proposed new track in Allegany County. The Senatealtered the bill and stripped out specific locations.

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

The main reason why is that horse racing interests have been lobbyingheavily for slots in Annapolis for years, and have given campaign donationsand 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 isgiving away a huge benefit.

Advocates of horse racing say that versions of a slots plan protectagainst this by requiring tracks to pay a relatively small license fee andto 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 millionapplication fee by October 1, 2005. The race track in Allegany County applicant has untilOctober 1, 2006 to apply and pay an application fee of $1.5 million.In addition, applicants must also invest at least $150 million inconstruction and relatedcosts; provide at least 500 full-time jobs (the Allegany track is requiredto invest $43million and provide at least 150 jobs); and except for the Allegany trackoffer at least15% of equity investment to minority investors if the licensee holds onelicense and 10%if the licensee holds two or more licenses."

Personnel

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 theindividual [MD4B] a 'hero' when the state party issued a strongcontradictory 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 MarylandDemocratic Party. There is no evidence that White was involved in anythinghaving to do with MD4Bush.

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