Candidates hope to gain on rate issue


Mayor Martin O'Malley is spending at least $210,000 to broadcast hundreds of 30-second spots that cast him as a working-class champion fighting the BGE rate increase and depict Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as being aligned with special interests.

The governor countered yesterday with a call for public hearings next week aimed at undermining the rate-deferral plan approved by the General Assembly while portraying himself as an ally of consumers. The hearings are sure to attract plenty of publicity for Ehrlich, and it won't cost him a penny.

The jockeying between Maryland's Republican governor and Baltimore's Democratic mayor demonstrates how both are seeking to capitalize on the political season's hottest issue - a proposed 72 percent average increase in electricity rates for BGE's residential customers. A lawsuit that O'Malley had his city solicitor file disputing a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. rate plan approved by the state Public Service Commission is widely credited with triggering the Assembly's special session this week to take up rate relief.

Yesterday, O'Malley began rotating a new commercial into the mix. While the ad does not mention BGE, it promotes a similar theme of the mayor fighting for the middle class. The ad blitz, which began June 5, is scheduled to end Sunday.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, the other major Democratic candidate in the governor's race, has not been able to match the mayor's aggressive approach on rates - an indication to some that O'Malley, for now, has the upper hand on the issue.

"The timing of the [BGE ad] buy is smart politics," said Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "O'Malley's timing couldn't be better. Smart politics is to take advantage of opportunities."

It is unclear how critical the issue will be to voters in the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 general election once consumers digest the new 15 percent rate increase approved in the special session, rather than the 72 percent rise that the General Assembly sought to avert.

What is clear is the candidates do not intend to let voters forget.

Ehrlich is expected to begin pressing his case next week by accusing the Democratic-controlled Assembly of politicizing ratepayers' pocketbooks by failing to pass his rate-mitigation plan during the regular session, aides said. He is expected to highlight how the Assembly's plan - unlike his - charges interest and does not give consumers a choice of opting out. Democrats counter that the interest payments will be more than offset by a BGE giveback that is not tied to approval of the utility's merger with a Florida utility.

"Up until the special session, there was only one credible plan put forth to help ratepayers and that was Governor Ehrlich's plan," said Audra Miller, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

Ehrlich has indicated that he might veto the measure.

Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the governor is not interested in securing any short-term political benefit from the issue. She said his only interest is to protect ratepayers while guaranteeing a reliable electricity supply.

She said O'Malley and Duncan, as local leaders, have nothing to lose in criticizing Ehrlich's plan.

"It's convenient to pick a hot-button issue and claim false victories, particularly when you're booing from the cheap seats," DeLeaver said.

For his part, Duncan is seen by many observers as a second-tier player in the debate because another utility company mainly serves his Montgomery County constituents. But he has been involved by being one of the first officials to call for a special session.

Duncan said that the Assembly's plan is a "good start" but that he will continue to argue that he is the only candidate with a plan to provide a long-term fix by pushing for re-regulation of the energy market.

"What good does it do if we're in the same crisis again next year?" Duncan said in an interview.

The problem for Duncan, however, is that the blueprint was largely laid out when Baltimore's legal team, at the mayor's request, sued the PSC. The lawsuit succeeded in forcing the PSC to conduct a new hearing, an action that indicated to many state lawmakers that a special session could work.

In an e-mail to supporters yesterday, O'Malley touted his gubernatorial running mate's role in the Assembly's passage of the rate plan. Del. Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George's County Democrat, secured veto-proof support for the measure. O'Malley wrote that he was "proud that the final legislation ... has many of the components" of his energy plan released in April.

Duncan has tried to use contributions to O'Malley and Ehrlich from BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group, and its top executives to show that the two have been disingenuous in their consumer-friendly rhetoric. Ehrlich received $33,000 and O'Malley $32,750, campaign records show. Duncan got $3,205, which he has returned.

In response, O'Malley has said that his efforts to ease the electricity rate increase contradict any claim that he is beholden to the utility. Ehrlich has said that he was elected as a pro-business governor, and in recent days has expressed concern about the dire consequences the utility would suffer if the Assembly bill passed, persisting even when a Constellation spokesman said the measure appeared to meet the utility's principal objectives.

In O'Malley's BGE ad, a narrator states that "the special interests already have their governor - we need one of our own." The narrator adds: "Martin O'Malley - taking on BGE to stop the rate hikes."

James Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the General Assembly did all of the candidates a favor by delaying steeper increases until next year.

"Most of the bad medicine is coming after the election," he said. "I think O'Malley is trying to create a good impression among voters that he is active on this issue. It's something that people will care about in casting their votes in both races."

He said Duncan has not been as "high profile" on an issue that is critical to people in the Baltimore region, where he needs to build name recognition.

Gimpel said the rate issue was of most concern to incumbents, including Ehrlich, who would have incurred the wrath of ratepayers had a solution not been forged. He said Ehrlich should let the issue alone and that a veto would be ill-advised.

"His best bet is to just simply sign it and hope that the issue goes away," Gimpel said.

Democratic Party leaders agree.

"If he doesn't sign this bill, he will be committing political suicide," said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party. "A veto is fine by me."

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