Small turnout for hearing


Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s public hearing yesterday on a General Assembly plan to address the looming electric rates crisis promised to be a clash of corporate interests versus citizen action groups, Republicans against Democrats, big labor dueling with big business. A big dustup with the governor as referee.

But the television that had been set up in an overflow room to broadcast the proceedings told the tale. As the hearing began, the monitor showed snow. All snow. No picture.

"They're up there for themselves," said Sonja Merchant-Jones, chairwoman of the Baltimore City chapter of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group for poor and low-income residents. "It's the media and the politicians."

The public had, in fact, failed to turn out in significant numbers. About 60 people testified.

Ehrlich hosted the hearing in a second-floor reception room with 30 chairs for those testifying (and the various members of the governor's staff who took seats).

More than an hour into the event, in the room on the first floor of the State House for the overflow crowd, just two dozen people sat staring at the television - which had finally been fixed. There were a handful of Service Employees International Union folks (wearing their trademark purple T-shirts), a couple of curious state employees and some regular citizens waiting to be called to testify, numbers in hand.

Upstairs, at least 12 television cameras lined one side of the hearing room. Ehrlich sat center stage, flanked by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (who departed after the first 90 minutes), James V. "Chip" DiPaula, the governor's chief of staff, and various Cabinet secretaries.

"I hope we all appreciate the governor's efforts to depoliticize this issue and really get to the heart of what's at stake here," Steele said.

Throughout, Ehrlich, Steele and DiPaula took notes, stroked their chins and nodded. Though the governor had previously lambasted the General Assembly's plan to address a potential 72 percent increase in utility rates for those served by BGE, he refrained from criticism yesterday.

Ehrlich said he scheduled the hearing to collect public feedback about the plan before he decides whether he'll veto the bill, sign it or let it become law without his signature. The deadline is midnight Thursday.

The clear majority of yesterday's testimony, however, advocated a veto of the Assembly's proposal, which would limit the rate increase to 15 percent for 11 months, beginning July 1, with more increases later. Not only, citizens said, was the legislature's solution to the rate increase a financial catastrophe, one witness said it might have fatal consequences.

"A 72 percent price hike is a disaster waiting to happen," said Roger Colton, a utilities specialist and principal of Fisher Sheehan & Colton, a Belmont, Mass., firm. "People will die as a result of this rate increase."

Carl Hayes, who represented the Hope Christian Church in Lanham, said Ehrlich must veto the bill.

"Seventy-two percent is a heavy burden to place on a family," he said.

Norris McDonald, founder and president of the African-American Environmentalist Association, called the Democratic plan "political theater." He told the governor that it was crafted "to upstage your PSC-approved plan, and it is a political tool to put a Democrat back in office."

"You are a very smart governor. We're proud of you," McDonald said. "You know when to hold 'em, and you know when to fold 'em. Fold this bill."

Laughter abounded. Ehrlich chuckled. Meanwhile, Democratic legislators came to the State House to give interviews to counter the Ehrlich message.

Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, said the hearing - most of which was televised live by Maryland Public Television - was one long, free advertisement for the governor.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas McLain Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said that if Ehrlich was really interested in the public's concerns, he would have shown up for the Assembly committee hearings.

"I think people are seeing right now this guy is nothing but politics," he said.

Still, Ehrlich sat and sat and sat, taking only two brief breaks in more than six hours of testimony. When it was over, he sounded no more enamored of the bill than he was when the hearing began. He called the proposal, which passed both chambers by veto-proof margins, "a flawed product" and "a vehicle that became more anti-consumer in the 24 hours that it took between Day One and Day Two of the special session."

"That probably needs some more analysis from the press," he said. "Far be it from me to ask the press to do anything."

Then he thanked everyone for turning out - though many seats in the room were empty. The people who remained applauded the governor.

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