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 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.

Electricity ratesTim, Millington: I've been paying higher rates for electricity on the Eastern Shore for several years now. My rates are also slated to go up on July 1 from Delmarva Power. Can you please publish the rates of all of the Maryland power companies, as well as those of the surrounding states? Let's have the facts, and keep all of the political rhetoric to a minimum.

Nitkin: Constellation has been running advertisements that include that information. Check the papers for those ads.

Susan, Towson: How has People's Counsel Patricia [A.] Smith been able to hold onto her job? She's a non-factor in electric rate negotiations, she has alienated legislators, and her behavior has been publicly called manic. At one point, the legislature wanted to fire her. What happened?

Nitkin: The people's counsel is appointed by the governor. We've heard some criticism of her performance. There are other lawmakers, however -- Del. Herb McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican, for one -- who believe Smith has researched the topics effectively and presented well-reasoned arguments and motions in the rate-increase proceedings.

Smith has told our reporters she believes her views and her office's work have not been accurately portrayed in the media. Still, the concerns about her office's effectiveness persist. Sun reporter Kelly Brewington wrote a profile of Smith during the recently concluded legislative session.

Ralph Brave, Baltimore: David, why has the legislative leadership not yet called a special session on the [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.] rate hike? What are the prospects that they will do so? Thank you.

Nitkin: General Assembly leaders said Monday that they would hold a special session, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. joined the call.

There are practical and political reasons why the General Assembly had not done so earlier.

Conventional wisdom holds that lawmakers should not convene special sessions unless they have worked out a general agreement ahead of time on solutions to problems. Special sessions cost money (around $50,000 a day) and draw attention to the Assembly. So, if lawmakers come back and begin squabbling, they'll take a hit in popularity -- just months before the election. They only want to return if they know what they are going to do. A plan or consensus on an electric rate solution is only now beginning to emerge.

Politically, if the Assembly reconvenes, lawmakers in effect take ownership of the issue. Many Democratic lawmakers would rather let Ehrlich, a Republican, be perceived as the leader responsible for the rate increases.

Diane Xu, Woodstock: With regard to the BGE rate issue, could the Public Service Commission [have] controlled the high rate if they want[ed] to?

Nitkin: Former PSC chairwoman Catherine Riley has said there are several steps the regulatory agency could have taken to control rates.

In a letter to The Sun in March, Riley described how the deregulation law gave the current commission chances to intervene and lower rates. "The PSC retained its full power and authority under the new law to oversee and reject any bid [for power] it found not to be 'just and reasonable,'" Riley wrote.

The current PSC, she wrote, "could have sought to change, rescind, amend, expand or replace" previous commission orders issued when she was chairwoman.

Michael, Baltimore: Reading the circuit judges' opinion in the case [Baltimore Mayor Martin] O'Malley brought, it seems as if the 72 percent increase happens unless there is a subsidy from the [planned Constellation] merger. If O'Malley scares Florida Power and Light away, won't he have killed the "golden goose?"

Nitkin: State Sen. E.J. Pipkin and others think there are other sources of money that could provide consumer relief, such as retrieving the so-called "stranded costs," or money paid by consumers to BGE for an anticipated decline in value in power plants that did not come to pass, and crediting the money to consumers.

ElectionsJenny, Timonium: Who do you think is going to win the attorney general race (primary and general)? What do you see as being the issues and topics that the campaigns will seize on?

Nitkin: In the Democratic primary, Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler has an advantage because of his large campaign war-chest and the fact that he has basically been campaigning for several years. But Montgomery County Councilman Thomas E. Perez enjoys support in many areas of the state. Frederick County State's Attorney Scott Rolle will likely be the Republican nominee.

I'm not sure that the race will be decided on issues so much as name recognition, endorsements and advertising. All the candidates will be pro-consumer and anti-crime. It's tough to see issues driving the race.

Ryan, Glen Burnie: In a previous chat, you wrote, "When questions about the fundraising of [Rep. Benjamin L.] Cardin have come up, such as the amount of money he has received from political action committees, we have reported on that." Where have those reports been? I've not seen them. Thank you.

Nitkin: You can read this article for a bit on that topic.

Donald Brady, Columbia: When Bob Ehrlich was Tom Delay's deputy whip in Congress, did he too develop a friendship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff?

Nitkin: Ehrlich has said on the radio "of course I know Jack Abramoff." Abramoff has also been to the governor's mansion for a Hanukkah party, and has donated money to the governor (which Ehrlich returned after Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud). But to my knowledge, the governor has never discussed in detail his relationship with Abramoff.

Rich Krueger, Linthicum: It seems that WBAL Radio constantly bombards the public with pro-Ehrlich, pro-Republican administration propaganda and rhetoric. Are there any legal requirements for this station that uses public airwaves to give equal time to the opposing candidates and their points of view? I can't imagine the cost if the candidates they support had to pay for the air time like candidates of other parties do!

Nitkin: I found this instructive link at the Web site for the Museum of Broadcast Communications describing the equal time rule. The rule covers, according to the Web site, legally qualified political candidates. In the case of the governor, he will become a candidate when he files for re-election with the state Board of Elections. The filing deadline is July 3. After that, the rule -- Section 315 -- will apply.

IssuesCarole DeRan, Bel Air: What are the biggest issues, according to the voters of the state of Maryland? How well were these issues addressed in the last legislative session?

Nitkin: Education, the environment, health care and the economy are the top issues on the minds of voters. As in any year, the General Assembly makes incremental changes in those areas and others (freezing university tuition rates; approving a stem-cell research plan). But the quality of public schools in Maryland and the health of the state's economy are barely impacted by decisions made by the Assembly in any one year.

Laurie Gilman, Sunderland: It seems many of the politicians that are opposed to slots side with people who say it will hurt the poor because it could cause a gambling addiction. Why, then, do we allow people on welfare to buy Maryland Lotto/MegaMillions daily numbers tickets and cash them in? They are spending my tax dollars to buy these tickets. If they need assistance that bad, they shouldn't be allowed to cash or buy the tickets if their Social Security number indicates they are receiving welfare assistance. Has this ever been brought up in the legislature?

Nitkin: One of the more effective arguments in favor of slots is that Maryland already endorses gambling, in the form of the lottery. Additionally, it's true -- as the governor says -- that Marylanders are playing slots anyway, but are playing them out of state, in Delaware, New Jersey and West Virginia.

I've never heard the argument that the government should check the Social Security numbers of people buying lottery tickets to check for welfare recipients. I'm not an expert on this, but I would imagine that much of the social assistance received by the needy is in the form of food and nutrition vouchers (the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC); rent subsidy (Section 8 and other programs); and transportation and day care assistance. In the era of welfare reform, I'm not sure how much money goes out as cash payments that can be spent on discretionary items such as lottery tickets.

Jason Reddish, Jessup: Do you sometimes feel more like The Sun's ombudsman than its political answerman? Feel free to answer/vent at jreddish@gmail.com.

Nitkin: I feel that many people have strong feelings about The Sun, and I tend to hear mainly the negative feelings. Usually, I don't mind at all providing answers to criticisms, because I truly believe that if the general public saw how much thought and energy and work went into preparing our news report each day, and how much we agonize over fairness, balance, accuracy and story play, they would realize that we get it right far more often than we get it wrong.

Bryan, Olney: Mr. Nitkin, you chose not to answer a key component of my question last week: Why did The Sun refuse to bring up criticisms of Josh White for calling MD4Bush a hero when the Maryland Democratic Party issued a statement of condemnation?

Nitkin: In a relatively short article about White becoming O'Malley's campaign manager, the full back-and-forth over MD4Bush did not seem relevant.

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