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New PSC chief promises look at rates

The Baltimore Sun

The Public Service Commission's new chairman said yesterday that he is committed to re-examining electricity regulation and said the commission will look closely at the possibility of a deferral plan for BGE ratepayers who are likely to see steep increases in their utility bills this summer.

"I think historically, the approach that has been taken is that the market is setting the rate, leaving not much role for the commission," chairman Steven B. Larsen said. "But that's not what I believe. There is a lot of work that can be done to look at the rates that are being proposed." Larsen spoke briefly about BGE's proposed 50 percent rate increase set to take effect June 1, after a swearing-in ceremony for him and three other members of the commission.

Between photos and handshakes, Gov. Martin O'Malley joked with commissioners. The ceremony represented a departure from the acrimonious days of the previous PSC, which was sharply criticized last summer for its handling of a proposed 72 percent rate increase for BGE's 1.1. million customers. Lawmakers lost so much trust in the commission that they passed a bill trying to fire the board.

As mayor of Baltimore, O'Malley, along with the city, successfully sued the PSC last year for failing to hold a proper hearing on the BGE rate increase.

O'Malley has made the PSC a priority early in his term as governor, tapping four new commissioners for the five-member board. O'Malley pressured former PSC chief Kenneth D. Schisler into resigning and last month appointed Larsen, a former executive vice president of Amerigroup Corp. and a consumer advocate who received high marks from state lawmakers. O'Malley's other appointments included: Susanne Brogan, who served on the commission from 1992 through 2001; and Lawrence Brenner, a deputy chief administrative law judge with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. O'Malley also renominated Harold D. Williams, a member of the PSC since 2002.

The new PSC faces intense scrutiny amid soaring energy costs. Despite a rate deferral plan approved by the General Assembly last year to lessen a projected 72 percent rate increase, electricity bills could rise by nearly 50 percent this summer.

O'Malley said that in the short term, he hopes the commission can devise a plan to help ratepayers deal with rising bills, and that in the long-term Maryland will become a leader in using renewable energy such as solar and wind power.

The governor said yesterday that assembling the new PSC was the first step in tackling the state's energy challenges.

"For right now, step number one had to be creating a public service commission that is competent, professional and follows the law and does what it's supposed to do in terms of regulating utilities," he said.


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