From power rates to voting to a Terps title

The Baltimore Sun

The top Maryland stories of 2006 as chosen by the Metro editors of The Sun:

(1) Electricity rates What looked like a pretty straightforward tale of a good idea at the time (deregulation of rates years ago) gone bad (consumers faced a sudden 72 percent increase) turned into a brouhaha involving all manner of politics and business. Democratic legislative leaders sought to portray the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - and his Public Service Commission - as in the pocket of Constellation Energy Group. Meanwhile, Constellation's chair, Mayo A. Shattuck III, wanted to merge with a Florida energy provider and held out concessions on prices if he could get approval. There were dueling bills promising rate relief. The legislature overode an Ehrlich veto. The Court of Appeals told the legislature it couldn't fire the PSC. If the hot air in Annapolis could have been harnessed, the state would have had free energy for years. In the end, the merger was called off. And, with only a little tinkering around the edges, consumers still got stuck with higher bills.

(2) Changing of the guard in state politics. Maryland got a new governor, a new senator, a new mayor of Baltimore, a new comptroller and a new state attorney general. One change seemed graceful: Paul S. Sarbanes stepping down after 18 years in the Senate, replaced by his longtime Washington Democratic colleague, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin. (Cardin, in turn, was replaced in the house by Sarbanes' son John.) Another not so graceful: William Donald Schaefer tried to overcome a gaffe-filled year and hang on as comptroller at the age of 84, but ran third in a three-way race as Montgomery County's Peter Franchot took the post. Meanwhile, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley handily defeated Ehrlich. That will elevate City Council president Sheila Dixon to the mayor's office. J. Joseph Curran Jr. retired from the attorney general's post and Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler won the race to replace him.

(3) Barbaro. The Kentucky Derby winner took off from the gate at the Preakness headed, many thought, for Triple Crown immortality. Instead, the horse barely survived the front stretch, pulling up lame, his right hind leg sticking out at an alarming angle. A lesser horse would have been put down immediately, but veterinary surgeons labored to patch Barbaro's shattered leg back together. Then Barbaro's left hoof developed a serious infection, laminitis, that usually leads to euthanasia. Doctors gave the horse little chance of survival, but again he pulled through, ending the year walking on all fours and apparently getting ready for a quiet life in the pasture.

(4) A basketball title at College Park. The women's team capped off a run through the NCAA tournament by defeating Duke in a mesmerizing game decided in overtime, tying the score in regulation on a beautiful three-pointer by freshman Kristi Toliver with 6.1 seconds left. Coach Brenda Frese, in her fourth year at Maryland, matched the title men's coach Gary Williams won in 2002.

(5) Good news for an early 19th-century Baltimore building and bad news for an early 20th-century one. The bad news was for the Rochambeau, a 1907 apartment building at Charles and Franklin streets. The Roman Catholic archdiocese, over the objection of preservationists, tore it down to build a prayer garden. It was better news for an old building a few hundred yards away as a $32 million renovation of the Basilica of the Assumption, begun in 1806. was completed.

(6) Scandals at the U.S. Naval Academy. Revelation that two football players were suspended from play for the 2005 season after testing positive for using performance-enhancing drugs - five others were tabbed as probably having taken the forbidden steroids - came on the heels of two highly publicized rape trials involving players: Kenny Ray Morrison, who was accused by two academy women of drugging them before sexually assaulting them - a verdict is pending - and quarterback Lamar Owens, who was acquitted.

(7) Feud over Baltimore schools. The announcement by Ehrlich's superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, that the state was taking over 11 city schools deemed to be failing brought resistance from O'Malley, who said the motivation was political, not educational. The legislature delayed the move for a year, into what will be O'Malley's term as governor. At least an indirect casualty of the fight was city schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland, who resigned and was replaced by interim CEO Charlene Cooper Boston.

(8) Maryland natives in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives. One is an expatriate - House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi of Northern California, who first learned politics in Little Italy from her father, legendary Baltimore Mayor and all-round politico Tommy D'Alesandro the Elder. Second in command is Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, who will become majority leader. Montgomery County's Chris Van Hollen was named chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Maryland roots run only so deep - Pelosi backed Pennsylvania's John P. Murtha for the majority leader post. Hoyer easily won a secret ballot among Democratic representatives, 149-86.

(9) The legal debate over gay marriage. In January, Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock threw out the state's legal requirement that marriage be between a man and a woman, ruling in favor of the gay couples who had brought the lawsuit in 2004. In December, the Court of Appeals heard arguments on the case and a decision is pending.

(10) Flex squad scandals. Twice during the year, the Baltimore Police Department faced problems involving Special Enforcement Teams, or "flex squads," units given leeway to go after the city's drug trade. Units in the Southeastern and Southwestern districts were disbanded after charges that went from planting evidence to rape. Scores of cases were dropped because of the allegations of misconduct.

- Michael Hill

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