Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has come under criticism for not stemming a steep increase in electricity rates this month, plans to announce additional funds today to help those who can't pay their power company bills.
Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the final amount of the increase to the $37 million Electrical Universal Service Program was still being determined last night. But he said the governor believes it is essential to provide as much assistance as possible at a time when rising temperatures could create dangerous conditions across Maryland.
As a candidate for governor, O'Malley, a Democrat, sharply criticized then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, for not doing more to offset a projected 72 percent increase in BGE rates.
O'Malley replaced a majority of the Public Service Commission, which regulates state utilities, but his appointees concluded after extensive hearings that the panel had no legal basis to reject the increase. A 50 percent BGE rate hike went into effect last week, on top of a smaller one last year.
Meantime, the state health department reported yesterday the first heat-related fatality of the year, and temperatures are expected to climb again today and tomorrow.
"As the weather heats up, it's important that people are aware of these programs should they require assistance," Abbruzzese said.
Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who plans to attend today's announcement, said the additional money would be a godsend. The assistance programs, though largely funded by the state, are administered by local governments, typically through the departments of housing or social services.
"Everywhere the mayor goes, there is a grave concern among citizens, especially our aging population in the city, about what this 50 percent rate increase means, and they want to know what the mayor can do," McCarthy said. "Everyone is impacted by this rate increase, but the most impacted citizens are those who have already been struggling with the cost of utilities."
Electric rates increased by 50 percent starting June 1 for BGE's 1.2 million customers.
Rate caps instituted as part of Maryland's 1999 decision to deregulate the electric industry expired last summer, but the General Assembly passed legislation to defer all but 15 percent of the 72 percent increase that was due to hit at that time.
BGE customers have until the end of June to sign up for a second deferral plan. That program brings customers up to market prices in three steps over the next seven months, with the deferred amount to be paid back over 21 months. No interest will be charged on the deferred payments.
Customers can sign up by calling 888-234-0505 or through the company's Web site, www.bge.com.
"Any means by which there can be an increase in available financial assistance for limited income customers is certainly welcome by us," said Robert L. Gould, a spokesman for BGE's parent company, Constellation Energy Group.
In 2005, Constellation pledged $26 million in assistance for customers over the next three years, and Gould said BGE adds several million more annually.
More information about the Electric Universal Service Program is available at 800-332-6347 or on the Department of Human Resources Web site: www.dhr.state.md.us/how/energy.
Several political leaders and consumer groups have called on O'Malley to go further in fighting the rate increase, saying a special session of the General Assembly is needed to re-regulate the electric industry. O'Malley has said he wants to explore re-regulation, but he has not expressed support for a special session.
Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican, said systemic action is necessary to really help consumers. "It's not a bad step, but the net of it is we need to re-regulate. We need to move the generating assets back into a regulated environment and get them to work for the people again."firstname.lastname@example.org