Lawmakers might meet on Tuesday


Maryland lawmakers aren't waiting for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. formally to call for a special session of the General Assembly to address BGE rates and could begin committee hearings on a new plan for consumer relief as early as Tuesday.

Leading the agenda of the Democrats who control the Assembly is firing the Public Service Commission, which is controlled by Ehrlich appointees. The commission has been accused of being too industry-friendly and was chastised by a judge last month for failing to protect consumers.

Legislators said they want to reduce the initial rate increase due to take effect July 1 from 72 percent to 15 percent, spreading out the rest over time. Lawmakers want to make sure customers aren't charged interest on the deferred payments.

"I think there's going to be a better bill, and I think there's going to be a lower rate increase," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said.

If committee hearings start Tuesday, the session could wrap up by Thursday, Miller said.

Ehrlich announced Monday that he would call a special session, but he has not signed an order to do so. The governor can call the General Assembly back unilaterally, or the legislature can initiate a session on its own with a petition signed by a majority of both the House and the Senate.

Although the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature are in agreement on the need for a session, members of the two parties were already maneuvering for political advantage yesterday in what has become the hottest election-year issue in the state.

"I'm glad the governor actually decided to follow the lead of the legislature in convening a special session because he said it wasn't going to happen," said Sen. Verna L. Jones, a Baltimore Democrat who has helped lead efforts of the Legislative Black Caucus to bring the Assembly back.

"It's unfortunate it took politics to bring him back in instead of the human outcry we've all been hearing," she said.

Del. George C. Edwards, the House Republican leader from Western Maryland, said the uproar is the product of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's run for governor. Residents in other parts of the state have seen steep electric rate increases over the past two years as electricity deregulation took hold there on a different timetable, but without widespread protest.

"You didn't hear diddly squat," Edwards said. "All of a sudden because it's an area where a Democrat is going to run for governor, it's a huge issue."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said that the governor's staff is drafting an executive order to call the session, but that the administration has not set a date.

"The governor intends to do this executive order as soon as possible," Fawell said.

Neither the governor nor the legislature has drafted bills for the General Assembly to consider. Top lawmakers and their aides met throughout the day yesterday to begin the work. They left petitions in the offices of the House clerk and Senate secretary for legislators to sign.

The events in Annapolis are being closely watched on Wall Street, where stock analysts are poring over every development to divine whether it might affect the pending merger between BGE-parent Constellation and Florida-based FPL Group Inc.

Some of them came to the Maryland capital for an even closer look. At impromptu news conferences after legislators met yesterday morning, several young men in well-tailored suits with leather-bound notebooks and State House visitor passes crowded in with the relatively rag-tag members of the Annapolis press corps to plumb comments by Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch for clues to what might happen next. "Was that Busch?" one of them said as the speaker walked out of the room.

The form of the legislation the General Assembly considers will determine how fractious debate becomes in the week ahead. Republican leaders yesterday began calling for the splitting of issues into separate bills - a move that would allow the governor to sign some measures, such as a rate deferral plan similar to the one he negotiated with Constellation in April, and to veto others, such as the bill to fire the PSC. Ehrlich has stood by the commission and called attempts to oust the members a power grab by Democrats. "It'd be nice if we could consider all these ideas separately instead of baking them all into one cake and saying, 'Either take this or nothing,'" Edwards said.

Democrats showed no sign of heeding that plea, and appear to be proceeding in a way to keep the governor boxed-in politically.

By combining a rate deferral plan with more controversial ideas, the legislature can force the governor to either accept elements he would not have before - for example, firing his appointees to the PSC - or veto a measure designed to lower his constituents' utility bills.

Miller said the issues would not be split into different bills.

As Democratic leaders see it, the members of the PSC - and, by extension, Ehrlich - have been in a bind since Baltimore Circuit Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. ruled against the PSC late last month. In that lawsuit, brought by O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to run against Ehrlich, Matricciani ruled that the commission had to hold a new hearing on the governor's rate deferral plan.

As Democrats saw it, if the PSC extended the rate caps or held new hearings and crafted a better plan, it would have handed a major victory to O'Malley and effectively admitted that it shirked its duty the first time.

But by not immediately scheduling a hearing and by reinstating last week an earlier deferral plan that is less favorable to consumers, the PSC fueled Democrats' drive to return in special session and fire the commission. Both Miller and Busch said the regulatory agency's response to the judge's order was what made them decide that a special session was necessary.

Ehrlich has suggested the legislature take as a starting point a bill that failed on the last day of the General Assembly session. It would have capped the summer rate increase at 15 percent and brought consumers up to market prices over 18 months. They would have made up the difference through monthly fees over 10 years but would not be charged interest.

But Miller said the legislature will likely go much farther. He said it will consider trying to recover hundreds of millions of dollars that consumers paid BGE parent Constellation Energy over the past several years to compensate it for the expected decline in value of its power plants. They appreciated in value instead. Lawmakers could also consider allowing municipalities to buy power in bulk and re-sell it to residents in an effort to secure a better rate, or attempt to halt customers' payments to cover the decommissioning costs of Constellation's nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs.

Republican legislators attempted yesterday to make sure they have a seat at the negotiating table, warning that the General Assembly needs to reach a consensus before it returns to Annapolis.

"What is your plan?" said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader from the Eastern Shore. "Is everyone going to have input? Is the governor's staff going to have input? Are Republican legislators going to have input?"

Busch assured him they would.

No Republican legislators or members of the governor's staff attended yesterday afternoon's meetings, but Fawell said members of the administration have had other conversations with General Assembly staffers about plans for the session.

What's next

Lawmakers are set to address electricity rate increases in a special session next week.

Tuesday: Legislative committees are scheduled to begin meeting to consider proposed legislation.

Wednesday: The House and the Senate are to convene to adopt laws that would reduce the initial impact of a proposed 72 percent BGE rate increase, disband the Public Service Commission and recoup money paid to BGE under the deregulation plan. The session could extend to Thursday.

Later: If Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoes bills passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature, the Assembly could return again to override the veto.

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