David Nitkin on state politics issues

Electricity ratesWilliam Lewis, Catonsville: Is anyone there aware of any lawsuits on behalf of people who are not satisfied about having the opt out choice taken away from them?

Nitkin: Some consumers are concerned about not being able to opt out of the rate deferral plan approved by the General Assembly, which will include a 10-year repayment program at a cost of just more than $2 per month, depending on electricity usage, on average. But there have been no lawsuits that I know of, and state and utility officials say that by requiring all customers to participate, Constellation Energy and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. will have a steadier source of revenue that puts it in a better financial position to borrow money that will pay for the rate deferral.

Mik Megary, Ocean Pines: Why hasn't The Sun been more critical of the Democrats with regards to the BGE rate situation? Wasn't it [former] Gov. [Parris N.] Glendening and the Democrats who prohibited BGE to increase rates as their costs increased? Wasn't this mess we are in easily foreseeable from any logical person'sperspective?

Nitkin: The risks and downsides to deregulation have been foreseeable forseveral years, as various states that passed deregulation plans have not seen savings to consumers. The history of Enron and California also carried warnings. As the rates crisis here has unfolded, The Sun has repeatedly reported that the 1999 bill was passed by a Democrat-controlled Assembly (with the votes of every Republican member) and signed by Glendening.

Addressing part of this point, I am also including here a recent e-mail that I received from Michael Powell, an attorney with Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander who is a former chief counsel to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"David, I think your answer to the question about the rate caps is accidentally misleading. (I know as I was one of the negotiators of the original bill.) A four year freeze and a rate cap were part of the original legislation and were inserted at the request of Governor Glendening to avoid a veto. It is true that the exact level of the rate cap was left open by putting a range into the stature but a four year period was specified. Subsequently, a settlement that included all of the parties but was primarily reached between the then People's Counsel and BGE extended the legislative rate caps from four years to six years and set the level of the cap at the lower end of the range.

It was presented to the PSC [Public Service Commission] as a "black box" settlement under which no specific item, including the length or level of the rate cap, could be re-examined by the PSC. To say that the PSC instead of the legislature set the length and the level is a bit misleading. A more accurate statement would be that the legislature required a rate cap that was subsequently extended under the same agreement between the People's Counsel and the Utilities that set the amount of stranded costs."

Dave, Bel Air: I'm confused. The General Assembly fired the existing PSC members due to the 72 percent rate hike proposal, saying they didn't do enough to prevent it. Yet, in your comment to D. Gruver, it seems you are saying nothing could be done, in fact it will eventually cost customers more. If this is true, and our rates will eventually exceed 72 percent, what was thepurpose of the special session and firing the PSC members? What does theGeneral Assembly expect the new members to do, threaten Constellation, andBGE and force them to keep rates lower?

Nitkin: The new law changes the way deregulated utility companies purchaseelectricity, and allows them to enter into multiple contracts of different timeframes, to take advantage of market conditions. The law also requires a new PSC to examine the proposed merger between Constellation and FPL Group Inc. and determine if the merger provides benefits to consumers. Both of these components of the law could lead to lower rates, but there is no guarantee.

ElectionA baltimoresun.com reader from Baltimore: [Mayor Martin] O'Malley is a joke! As a candidate, is there any one issue he has stood for as mayor that provides a reason to get votes in your opinion?

Nitkin: This is the type of question that is best posed to the candidatesthemselves. I'd suggest you go to the Web sites of the candidates forgovernor (www.martinomalley.com and www.bobehrlich.com) and see what issuesand positions you agree with and disagree with.

Joe, Baltimore: Dave, unfortunately I live in Baltimore City. I have seen nothinggood come from the O'Malley administration. City services are below levels seen in the surrounding counties, [and] the school system is probably the worst in the country. What does the cry baby mayor have to offer the state?

All the promises he made to become mayor have not been met. Murders are higher,[and] taxes and fees are higher. Why doesn't The Sun do a comparison of O'Malley's progress in Baltimore during his tenure? I believe if you did, you would find the city is in such a disarray. Also, remember his one staff member [who] made very derogatory remarks about homosexuals and, years later, O'Malley promoted him? He would not make a good governor and I don't see why The Sun paper is afraid to point out all his shortcomings.

Nitkin: There are more than four months before the general election. The Sun will be writing extensively (and has already written much) about themayor's record in office.

Thomas Menter, Williamsport: All this talk about what [Gov. Robert L.] Ehrlich [Jr.] has done, what about the sad state of affairs the juvenile justice system is in? Nothing has improved there -- if anything, it's worse.

Nitkin: The governor made juvenile justice a major campaign issue four years ago, especially in light of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's oversight of that area. Many critics believe little progress has been made, while Ehrlich administration officials say they are making gains -- and point to the closing of the Hickey School as a particular achievement. It's unclear whether the governor will continue to talk about juvenile justiceon the campaign trail this year, or whether O'Malley will make an issue of it.

Fred Burke, Baltimore: I can't believe The Sun is attacking a candidate based on her religion. A new low!

Nitkin: I assume you are talking about our coverage of Kristen Cox, thegovernor's selection as a running mate. We have not attacked Cox, but wehave reported on her religion, her views on social issues, and how the twointersect. Sun Public Editor Paul Moore wrote about the topic last week, and I provided him -- and now you -- with some of our thinking.

Cox is a relative unknown to Maryland voters, as well as to members of the media who have been covering the Ehrlich administration for years. If she were to be elected, she would immediately become a front-runner for governor in 2010, and she would also be in line to become governor sooner were Ehrlich no longer in office. Voters deserve to know as much about her and her beliefs as we can find out.

Cox does not have a voting record to examine, because she has never held elected office and has never cast a vote. She does not have a detailed administrative record to examine, because she runs a relatively small state agency (25 people, $5 million budget) that was created in 2004. She has not run for office before, so she has not issued campaign statements or been involved in debates or run advertisements.

She has lived in Maryland for seven years, so she does not have a deep history in the state -- such as high school or college political clubs or service activities -- to examine.One of the defining features of her background is her Utah upbringing and her faith. She is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Issues such as abortion, the death penalty, stem cell research and gay marriage are salient with voters; and many voters may make decisions based on these positions. It's not enough for a running mate to say "I support the governor's positions" on these, because the running mate could well be elevated to the top job some day, for any number of reasons.

We did explore these same issues when Michael S. Steele was selected as a running mate -- about how he differed with the governor on abortion and the death penalty due to his Catholic upbringing. And we wrote fairly lengthy articles about the faith and religious backgrounds of Townsend and Ehrlich during the 2002 campaign.

Additionally, the views of Mormonism are an important issue in American politics -- Mitt Romney, the Massachusetts governor, is addressing the issue regularly as he mounts a bid for president.

We go as many places as we can to search for clues about candidates' views and abilities -- including their religious beliefs.

Darrington, Baltimore: Why couldn't Ehrlich and the state GOP find a successful, African-American woman to run as his lieutenant governor? I am sure there are politically versed African-American women in this state who are a lot more qualified than Kristen Cox.

Nitkin: I'm sure the governor did consider African-American women as running mates. Some published reports speculated that he was considering Sen. Gloria Lawlah of Prince George's County. Lawlah is a Democrat, however, as are many black women leaders.

While the governor may well have been able to convince a black woman running mate to switch parties, there are many in the state GOP who believe that the person who became running mate -- and would hold an advantage in getting the party's nomination for governor in 2010 -- should be a lifelong Republican. Additionally, after Ehrlich selected a black running mate in 2002 (Steele) he may have been looking in a different direction this time.

Mark, Annapolis: The governor's choice of Kristen Cox is probably shrewd politics and her story is inspirational. But, her experience seems quite limited tobe the governor of Maryland, if necessary. What do you think?

Nitkin: See the answer above.

BiasMiles Long, Roland Park: David, The Sun is biased and here is a great example of why it is biased. The [Associated Press] did a story that started with these words: "The mayor of Baltimore exceeded his authority when he fired the police commissioner, Maryland's second-highest court has ruled.

Mayor Martin O'Malley fired Commissioner Kevin Clark in November 2004, saying domestic abuse allegations against the commissioner, although unsubstantiated, had become a distraction to fighting crime."

Why did The Sun decide this is not an issue? The mayor was wrong and the city is most likely going to pay millions to take care of this. Why is that not an important story?

Nitkin: The Sun has written about the lawsuit, and wrote a similar story based on the Court of Special Appeals decision released late last month.

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