Ehrlich to hear Md. on rate bill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Arguing that the BGE rate-relief plan approved by the General Assembly last week will bring finality to the state's most pressing consumer issue, Democrats called on the governor yesterday to either sign the legislation or veto it now.

But that decision, due later this week, will come after a five-hour public hearing that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will conduct today on the Assembly's plan to defer part of the average 72 percent increase. Ehrlich aides said it will give the governor the chance to hear from people whose voices have been absent from the debate.

Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, said the issue is so important that the governor needs to hear from all sides before making his decision. Ehrlich has not said whether he would veto it, but he has been sharply critical of the measure.

"This is an opportunity for both sides to voice their support or concerns about a legislative plan that carries enormous consequences for more than a million Marylanders," Fawell said.

Eighteen Republicans joined nearly every Democrat in the General Assembly to give the bill veto-proof majorities in both chambers. The Assembly recessed the brief special session it convened last week and could quickly return for an override vote.

BGE rates are going up this summer because rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's deregulation of the electricity industry in 1999 expire July 1.

Democrats called the governor's hearing a political show that would serve only to delay a final resolution of the rates crisis.

"I am urging the governor to sign the bill or veto the bill, but stop blocking progress," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is running for governor, said yesterday at a City Hall news conference. "Continuing this sort of political theater and this instability does nothing for consumers; it does nothing to make the utility healthy."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat running for governor, also called for swift action. He sent a letter to Ehrlich yesterday urging him to sign the measure.

"Hearings on the current bill are pure showmanship, while real hearings on a long-term energy strategy would show true leadership," Duncan wrote in the letter, released by his campaign. "We need an energy policy that provides a reliable and affordable supply of electricity ... and guarantees that consumers are protected first."

The rate-relief measure passed last week by the Assembly caps the increase at 15 percent for 11 months. After that, customers could go to market rates or opt for an as-yet-undeveloped transition plan.

To make up for the deferred payments, residential consumers would be charged a monthly fee for 10 years, on average about $2.19 after givebacks from BGE parent Constellation Energy Group. A customer with an average monthly electric bill of $83 would save about $520 over 11 months but would be required to pay back about half that total over 10 years.

The measure contains other provisions to which Ehrlich has objected, notably the replacement of the state Public Service Commission, which is controlled by his appointees.

Ehrlich is requiring that those who want to speak at the hearing sign up in advance and has posted a list of topics he wants to focus on, leading Democrats to question whether his aides will screen who gets to address the governor and what they will say.

An online sign-up closed at 3 p.m. yesterday, but Ehrlich policy director Alan Friedman said the administration would try to accommodate those who missed the deadline.

"The governor is willing to hear from everybody," Friedman said.

He said the hearing will be divided into three sections. First, a group of analysts will go over details of the rate bill. Friedman said they were not selected by the Ehrlich administration and are not predominantly on one side or the other. Many have not taken a stand on whether the bill should be vetoed, Friedman said.

After that, the governor will hear from opponents of the bill and finally from proponents. Those waiting to testify will not be allowed in the ceremonial reception room where the meeting is to be held but will be given a place to wait elsewhere in the Capitol. Friedman said the administration will try to arrange a live video feed of the proceedings for those in the waiting room.

The sign-up form, which is available at www.maryland.gov, asks those who want to testify for their name, address, e-mail address and telephone number. It asks whether the person signing up represents an organization or has testified on the rates issue before. People who have not testified before will be given preference, Friedman said.

Those who sign up must indicate whether they support or oppose the bill and can include comments about the measure.

Sign-up is also available by phone at 410-974-3336.

Fawell said yesterday that he could not provide a number for how many people had signed up, but he said responses were running about even from those who support the measure and those who oppose it.

The governor's office said the hearing would focus on five topics:

Does this plan do enough to help consumers?

Has Constellation contributed enough money to consumers to help reduce increasing electricity costs?

How will this plan affect the stability of electric rates in the future?

Should a rate mitigation plan be optional or mandatory?

What fees should consumers who opt out of a rate mitigation plan be required to pay?

Democrats pounced on the format. The state party said in a news release that the governor had "stacked the deck" to get comment favorable to his position.

"This entire process is a sham," said Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman in a news release. "It's not only a sign of a weak and indecisive chief executive, it's also proof of how dependent Ehrlich is on cheap public stunts to bolster his failing public image."

Hearings on whether a governor should veto a bill are rare in Maryland. Gov. William Donald Schaefer conducted one on the state speed limit, and Gov. Marvin Mandel held one on an abortion bill.

The event is adding to the political drama surrounding the rates issue, which has consumed the capital for months.

The Democratic Party began making automated telephone calls into the districts of Baltimore-area Republican senators who voted against the bill. The calls gave the phone numbers for the senators - Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County and Janet Greenip of Anne Arundel County - and urged listeners to make their opinions known.

The Republican Party made calls of its own last week, featuring a recording of the governor criticizing the Assembly rates plan.

O'Malley, who successfully sued last month to block a rate plan negotiated by the governor and Constellation officials, said he will not attend the hearing. But City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler, who argued the city's lawsuit, has signed up to testify. Tyler has testified before, so it is unclear whether he will get a chance today.

"We really need to move on. Maryland really needs to move on," O'Malley said. "If the governor vetoes the bill we have more drama. ... If the governor vetoes the bill, we have more uncertainty."

Duncan campaign spokeswoman Jody Couser said neither the county executive nor any of his representatives plan to attend the hearing.

Several advocacy organizations and unions have said they will bring supporters of the bill to Annapolis to testify or to protest outside the State House.

Maryland Public Television announced yesterday that it will broadcast the hearing live - all five hours.

"There is no bigger issue in Maryland right now than electric deregulation," MPT President Rob Shuman said in a news release.

andy.green@baltsun.com john.fritze@baltsun.com

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