The General Assembly overrode Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a BGE rates bill yesterday, capping this summer's increase in electricity bills at 15 percent and firing the members of the Public Service Commission.
But the vote might not bring an end to the issue that has dominated Maryland politics and sparked anger and confusion among BGE's more than 1 million residential customers.
Ehrlich has questioned the legality of the Democratic-controlled Assembly firing all five PSC commissioners and said yesterday that he will encourage a lawsuit by the regulatory agency's chairman, Kenneth D. Schisler, a former Republican delegate appointed by the governor.
"We'll see 'em in court," Ehrlich said.
PSC spokeswoman Christine E. Nizer said the commission is still considering its legal options. Earlier this year, Schisler filed a suit - along the lines of what Ehrlich suggested - when legislators passed a similar law, which died when Ehrlich vetoed it in April.
New provisions in the bill that was enacted yesterday make legal action more difficult - Schisler could not again use public funds to pay for his lawsuit and could not file again in his hometown courthouse in Easton - but Ehrlich said a suit is necessary.
"Absolutely," he said. "The court here is really the last resort for the people."
The new law calls for House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller to designate by July 1 three nominees for Ehrlich to consider for PSC chairman and 10 names for the other four seats. If the governor doesn't choose by July 15, the legislators get to do so. Ehrlich said yesterday that he's inclined to let them pick.
BGE rates were due to rise by 72 percent July 1 because of the expiration of limits instituted when Maryland deregulated the electric industry in 1999. In the past four months, the increase has been the biggest topic in the governor's race, and Ehrlich showed yesterday that he does not plan to let the issue go away.
Besides raising the specter of a legal challenge, Ehrlich succeeded yesterday in getting several of his fellow Republicans to switch sides and support his veto.
The plan initially passed with significant bipartisan support. Nearly all Republicans in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties - key jurisdictions in the coming election - sided with the Democrats in supporting the plan. Yesterday, only one Republican voted to override.
Ehrlich said Republicans will ride the issue to victory in November.
"I am not pleased with this result, but you couldn't have a more stark contrast up and down the ballot," he said. "[Democratic leaders] Mike Miller and Mike Busch will be on the ballot in every race across the state of Maryland."
The state Senate convened for less than 10 minutes and overrode the governor with no discussion. The override there passed 34-10 on a mostly party-line vote.
"It's time to move on," said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "We have a good bill."
The House of Delegates discussed the measure for about a half-hour and voted 87-37 to override the veto, just two votes more than the requisite supermajority.
The vote was close both because of vote-changing among Republicans and because several Democrats were unable to attend the voting session, which came less than 24 hours after Ehrlich's veto.
Republicans said during the debate and afterward that they had learned more about the bill since their initial votes in last week's brief special session. Some said they were swayed by the opinions of people in their districts.
Ehrlich also held a hearing at which witnesses critical of the Assembly bill outnumbered those in favor by about 3 to 1. The governor said the bill wasn't friendly enough to consumers, but Democrats said it provided more relief than an earlier measure negotiated by the governor with BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group. They also said the savings in their plan were not tied, in part, to a merger between Constellation and a Florida utility company.
"I don't think any of us had the chance to really solicit public opinion during the special session because it was midnight" when the legislature voted on the plan, said Del. Terry R. Gilleland Jr., an Anne Arundel Republican who initially supported the bill but opposed the override. "There's just been a huge outcry of opposition in my district."
The plan caps rates at 15 percent above their present levels for 11 months. Customers will pay a monthly fee expected to average $2.19 for 10 years to make up the difference.
After the initial rate freeze, consumers will have the choice to go to market rates or enroll in another deferral plan, which would likely add to the monthly fee. In the meantime, the new PSC would investigate BGE rates to see whether other savings can be passed on to consumers and whether the 72 percent increase was justified.
Ehrlich and other members of his party have focused their attacks on two provisions of the Democrats' plan: consumers cannot choose whether to participate, and BGE will be entitled to about $109 million in interest over the 10 years.
The plan Ehrlich agreed to at the end of the legislative session - and which he asked lawmakers to take up again in the special session - also offered no consumer choice. Both that plan and another he negotiated with Constellation after the spring legislative session allowed the company to collect interest.
Democrats say they cannot legally construct a plan that doesn't allow BGE to recoup the interest it would be charged on borrowings to finance the deferred payments. However, they say give-backs from the company will cover all of the interest and much of the principal. Ehrlich made similar claims about his plan, but the give-backs were tied to the merger.
Del. Herbert H. McMillan, an Anne Arundel County Republican who switched his vote yesterday, said he didn't fully understand many of the details of the plan when he voted for it during the special session. He said he still believes there are good provisions in the bill but they are outweighed by the bad.
"There's a lot of stuff in here that's hard to pick out in an 18-hour period that comes out later," McMillan said.
Democrats said Ehrlich and members of his party in the legislature are giving misleading explanations of the bill's details to obscure the big picture, which is that the bill mitigates the rate increase.
"The important thing is we are softening the blow here," said Del. Kumar P. Barve of Montgomery County, the House majority leader. "We drove a hard bargain with Constellation, and this is going to help all the people in the Baltimore region."
Other Democrats said Republicans are mistaken if they think voters want them to fight this bill. Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat, said people in his district are tired of the issue and happy to hear that a rate relief plan has passed.
"I brought it up with a few people when I was out door-knocking, but they said, 'No, I want to talk to you about something else,'" Brochin said. "They just want it to be over."
The roll call
The Maryland General Assembly voted yesterday to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of legislation that defers most of this summer's 72 percent BGE electric rate increase for 11 months, and replaces the Public Service Commission with new appointees.
Voting Yes (34)
John C. Astle, D-Anne Arundel Gwendolyn T. Britt, D-Prince George's James Brochin, D-Baltimore County Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George's James E. DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel George W. Della Jr., D-Baltimore City Roy P. Dyson, D-St. Mary's Nathaniel Exum, D-Prince George's Jennie M. Forehand, D-Montgomery Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery Robert J. Garagiola, D-Montgomery John A. Giannetti Jr., D-Prince George's Lisa A. Gladden, D-Baltimore City Leo E. Green, D-Prince George's Sharon M. Grosfeld, D-Montgomery Patrick J. Hogan, D-Montgomery Paula C. Hollinger, D-Baltimore County Ralph M. Hughes, D-Baltimore City Philip C. Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel Verna L. Jones, D-Baltimore City Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County Katherine A. Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County Rona E. Kramer, D-Montgomery Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George's Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne's Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery Norman R. Stone Jr., D-Baltimore County Leonard H. Teitelbaum, D-Montgomery
Voting no (10)
David R. Brinkley, R-Frederick Richard F. Colburn, R-Dorchester Janet Greenip, R-Anne Arundel Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County Nancy Jacobs, R-Harford Allan H. Kittleman, R-Howard Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick Donald F. Munson, R-Washington Sandra B. Schrader, R-Howard
John J. Hafer, R-Allegany J. Robert Hooper, R-Harford J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Somerset
House of Delegates
Voting yes (87)
Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore City Charles E. Barkley, D-Montgomery Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery Joanne C. Benson, D-Prince George's Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary's Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore City Eric M. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County William A. Bronrott, D-Montgomery Anthony G. Brown, D-Prince George's Emmett C. Burns Jr., D-Baltimore County Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel Rudolph C. Cane, D-Wicomico Jill P. Carter, D-Baltimore City Galen R. Clagett, D-Frederick County Virginia P. Clagett, D-Anne Arundel Mary A. Conroy, D-Prince George's Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico Clarence Davis, D-Baltimore City Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George's Steven J. Sr. DeBoy, D-Baltimore County John P. Donoghue, D-Washington Ann Marie Doory, D-Baltimore City Kathleen M. Dumais, D-Montgomery Brian J. Feldman, D-Montgomery Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery Barbara A. Frush, D-Prince George's Tawanna P. Gaines, D-Prince George's Marshall T. Goodwin, D-Baltimore City Melony Ghee Griffith, D-Prince George's Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery Peter A. Hammen, D-Baltimore City Hattie N. Harrison, D-Baltimore City Keith E. Haynes, D-Baltimore City Anne Healey, D-Prince George's Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery Marvin E. Holmes Jr., D-Prince George's Carolyn J.B. Howard, D-Prince George's James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George's Mary-Dulany James, D-Harford Sally Y. Jameson, D-Charles Adrienne A. Jones, D-Baltimore County Anne R. Kaiser, D-Montgomery Darryl A. Kelley, D-Prince George's Nancy J. King, D-Montgomery Ruth M. Kirk, D-Baltimore City Carolyn J. Krysiak, D-Baltimore City Sue Kullen, D-Calvert Jane E. Lawton, D-Montgomery Susan C. Lee, D-Montgomery Murray D. Levy, D-Charles Mary Ann Love, D-Anne Arundel Richard S. Madaleno, Jr., D-Montgomery James E. Malone Jr., D-Baltimore County Adrienne A. Mandel, D-Montgomery Salima S. Marriott, D-Baltimore City James N. Mathias Jr., D-Worcester Brian K. McHale, D-Baltimore City Maggie L. McIntosh, D-Baltimore City Brian R. Moe, D-Prince George's Karen S. Montgomery, D-Montgomery Doyle L. Niemann, D-Prince George's Nathaniel T. Oaks, D-Baltimore City John A. Olszewski Jr., D-Baltimore County Jeffrey A. Paige, D-Baltimore City Rosetta C. Parker, D-Prince George's Obie Patterson, D-Prince George's Shane E. Pendergrass, D-Howard Carol S. Petzold, D-Montgomery James E. Proctor Jr., D-Prince George's Catherine E. Pugh, D-Baltimore City Neil F. Quinter, D-Howard Victor R. Ramirez, D-Prince George's Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-Baltimore City Justin D. Ross, D-Prince George's David D. Rudolph, D-Cecil Theodore J. Sophocleus, D-Anne Arundel Joan F. Stern, D-Montgomery Herman L. Taylor II, D-Montgomery Frank S. Turner, D-Howard County Veronica L. Turner, D-Prince George's Joseph F. Vallario Jr., D-Prince George's Michael L. Vaughn, D-Prince George's Michael H. Weir Jr., D-Baltimore County Bobby A. Zirkin, D-Baltimore County
Voting no (37)
Susan L. M. Aumann, R-Baltimore County Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick Gail H. Bates, R-Howard David G. Boschert, R-Anne Arundel Joseph C. Boteler III, R-Baltimore County John W. E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County Robert A. Costa, R-Anne Arundel Donald H. Jr. Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel Adelaide C. Eckardt, R-Dorchester George C. Edwards, R-Garrett Donald B. Elliott, R-Carroll D. Page Elmore, R-Somerset William J. Frank, R-Baltimore County Terry R. Gilleland Jr. , R-Anne Arundel Jeannie Haddaway, R-Talbot Richard K. Impallaria, R-Baltimore County J. B. Jennings, R-Baltimore County A. Wade Kach, R-Baltimore County Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany Sheryl L. Davis-Kohl, R-Harford Susan W. Krebs, R-Carroll John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel W. Daniel Mayer, R-Charles Susan K. McComas, R-Harford Tony McConkey, R-Anne Arundel Patrick L. McDonough, R-Baltimore County Robert A. McKee, R-Washington Herbert H. McMillan, R-Anne Arundel Warren E. Miller, R-Howard LeRoy E. Jr. Myers, R-Allegany Anthony J. O'Donnell, R-Calvert Joanne S. Parrott, R-Harford Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington Tanya Thornton Shewell, R-Carroll Richard A. Sossi, R-Queen Anne's Paul S. Stull, R-Frederick Mary Roe Walkup, R-Kent
Patrick N. Hogan, R-Frederick Nancy R. Stocksdale, R-Carroll
Excused from voting
Barry Glassman, R-Harford
Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County Jean B. Cryor, R-Montgomery Marilyn R. Goldwater, D-Montgomery Michael R. Gordon, D-Montgomery Pauline H. Menes, D-Prince George's Joseph J. Minnick, D-Baltimore County Dan K. Morhaim, D-Baltimore County Gareth E. Murray, D-Montgomery Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore County Luiz R. S. Simmons, D-Montgomery Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Cecil John G. Trueschler, R-Baltimore County Richard B. Weldon Jr., R-Frederick John F. Wood Jr., D-St. Mary's