Forces muster for rate hearing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. laid out details yesterday for the hearing he has called to discuss a new General Assembly electricity rate-relief plan, an event shaping up as an unusually public showdown between backers of the governor and those who support the legislative measure.

Proponents of the bill that would blunt the impact of a 72 percent rate increase say they are prepared to pack the proceedings with people angry at the governor for opposing the deal.

But the governor has said he intends to use the hearing - scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday in an ornate State House meeting room adjacent to his office - to highlight what he sees as the inappropriate elements of the plan.

Ehrlich has criticized the bill as overreaching by the legislature, in large part because it replaces the Public Service Commission, made up of gubernatorial appointees, with members pre-selected by the Assembly.

For the governor, the hearing provides a high-profile opportunity to express his opposition to the legislation passed by Democrats in a high-drama special session this week - letting him gather evidence that he could use to buttress his arguments if he decides to veto the legislation.

But top lawmakers accuse the governor of engaging in needless political theater, and they say the relief plan will become law whether Ehrlich approves or not. The measure passed with more than enough votes to override a veto.

"As far as he and his administration are concerned, this matter has sunk to politics, and there's very little policy coming from them," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "All [the public hearing] does is give him a bully pulpit. It gets everybody there, all the media and the television cameras, to concentrate on him and his talking points."

Confident that the law will take effect, top Democrats began yesterday to carry out one of the major provisions of the legislation by contacting candidates for a new Public Service Commission.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. issued an opinion yesterday saying the measure calling for the replacement of commissioners is constitutionally valid, countering a concern expressed by the governor and others.

Deregulation effect

BGE electricity rates have dominated the news in Central Maryland since the utility announced in March that its rates would go up 72 percent this summer. The sudden jump comes with the expiration of rate caps instituted as part of the state's 1999 electricity deregulation plan.

Consumers will be assessed a monthly fee for 10 years to make up for the deferred payments. The fee would average $2.19 a month but would vary depending on the size of a customer's bill. Consumers who move out of the BGE service area would not be assessed a final charge; instead, the fee would stay with the house.

Community and labor groups - as well as Ehrlich's political opponents - are planning to cram the hearing with supporters of the measure and ring the State House with protesters to urge him to sign the bill, which cuts the July 1 rate increase from 72 percent to 15 percent.

"Why does he need a public hearing ... unless he's trying to just put together this facade or phony hearing just to help build up his ego and his public image?" said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., executive director of the local council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "We're going to make sure he doesn't go unchallenged."

The governor has said he and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will attend the five-hour public hearing, which will be held after the Tuesday funeral of longtime state Del. John S. Arnick, where Ehrlich is scheduled to speak. Those who want to address the hearing will have to sign up online beforehand, and equal time will be given to proponents and opponents of the bill, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.

The sign-up is available at www.maryland.gov.

The ceremonial State House reception room, lined with portraits of former governors, has a capacity of about 100 people, but Fawell said only groups of about 10 will be brought in at any time.

Proponents of the bill say they will make sure far more people than that show up at the hearing.

"You mean the hearing where you have to pre-register online and give a blood sample and everything to get in?" said Derrick Jessup, head organizer for the Baltimore chapter of ACORN. "We're definitely going to pack a bus and take everybody down there."

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said there will be no lack of people at the State House to support the governor Tuesday.

"All I can tell you is we're hearing from people that do not like this bill, Republicans and Democrats, and we hope they'll show up and voice their opposition to the legislature's bill."

A waste of time

Both of the governor's prospective Democratic opponents, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the hearing is waste of time.

"If he needs to have a hearing to determine if 15 percent is less than 72 percent, that's fine," said O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney. "But the reality is, this is over. It's time for the governor to sign the bill."

Kearney said the mayor will not attend but City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler - who successfully argued in Circuit Court that the PSC failed to do its job when it approved the 72 percent increase - would testify if Ehrlich allows it.

Duncan said Ehrlich should spend the time instead working on crafting a long-term energy plan for the state.

"Rather than staging political theater, he should be bringing people together to begin the process of making sure this doesn't happen again," Duncan said.

Del. Dereck C. Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the committee that handled the BGE issue, said he hopes to make it to Ehrlich's hearing so he can hear the governor's complaints.

"I know some of the elements are very similar to what we had in the bill at the end of the [regular General Assembly] session, and he seemed to really like that one, so I would love to hear what's wrong with this one," Davis said.

Ehrlich has also questioned whether some provisions - particularly those dealing with the replacement of the PSC members - are legal.

Curran, who is O'Malley's father-in-law, wrote in a letter yesterday that the bill meets all applicable constitutional and legal standards. Fawell declined to comment on the letter.

PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler sued the state when the legislature passed a measure during the regular session to fire the commission, though that case was put on hold when Ehrlich vetoed the bill.

PSC spokeswoman Christine E. Nizer said no decision has been made on whether to revive the suit.

But Miller, the Senate president, said he has begun compiling a list of possible appointees to the new commission.

The bill calls for him and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to give Ehrlich three nominees for chairman and 10 for the other four slots on the commission.

Miller said he is considering nominees including: former PSC Chairwoman Catherine I. Riley; former People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso; current PSC commissioners Allen M. Freifeld and Harold D. Williams; former Republican state Sens. Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County and F. Vernon Boozer of Baltimore County; and former Prince George's County Democratic Del. Rushern L. Baker III.

Miller said he would meet Monday or Tuesday with Busch, who was out of town yesterday, to complete a list.

"It requires the very best people," Miller said. "It's got to be people who are devoted to making government work."

PSC on hold

With the current PSC facing removal, it has suspended its hearings into rate plans.

Schisler had planned to hold hearings - as ordered recently by a Baltimore circuit judge in the suit brought by O'Malley - for Monday. But now they are on indefinite hold.

"Because of the plan that was put in place by the legislature, all parties agreed it was best to suspend the procedural hearings," said the spokeswoman, Nizer.

The city's lawsuit, many lawmakers say, prompted the legislature's special session.

"The lawsuit accomplished entirely the objective that it sought to accomplish," said Tyler. "We sought reversal of the PSC's decision on rate stabilization and a remand of the commission, and we got that."

If the bill becomes law, it might not spell the end to all legal action. Tyler said yesterday that he is considering a filing to the PSC ordering BGE to refund charges to its budget-billing customers, who have seen some of the 72 percent increase reflected in their bills. The budget-billing program allows customer to spread out their annual costs into even monthly payments.

Tyler said that budget-billing customers should see credits on their bills to reflect the payments they made at the higher rate for the past few months, but he wants to make sure BGE follows through.

"I don't know why anyone would assume that they would automatically do it," he said.

andy.green@baltsun.com

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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