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Did The Sun go too easy on BGE rates, O'Malley?

The Baltimore Sun

On June 1, just in time for summer's rising temperatures, Baltimore Gas and Electric's 1.1 million residential customers began paying about 70 percent more for their electricity than last summer, The Sun reported recently. For some readers, that news prompted questions about why The Sun has not been more aggressive in its coverage of Gov. Martin O'Malley's handling of this issue - especially his failure to fulfil a campaign promise last fall to "stop the rate hikes."

Many of these readers feel that the newspaper - in the news and editorial pages - has spared O'Malley from the tough scrutiny faced by other Maryland politicians. In fact, the newsroom has questioned, analyzed and criticized O'Malley and his policies as much as those of other politicians, a fact he would gladly confirm. Still, in the case of the BGE rate increase coverage, readers have a point. O'Malley's 2006 gubernatorial campaign advertising pledged to stop the prospective electric rate hikes - at a time when most experts agreed that there were no viable options to do so without causing economic or regulatory chaos.

So when The Sun's lead front-page article on May 24 proclaimed, "50% increase in BGE rates OK'd by PSC," it was obvious that O'Malley's promise to stop the huge increases had failed. This article focused mainly on important consumer issues. But, in my view, it did not clearly explain that combined with the 15 percent rate increase approved by the General Assembly in 2006, BGE customers would now be paying the 72 percent that produced such an outcry when the prospect surfaced last year.

Elsewhere in the news sections, coverage of O'Malley mostly centered on the governor's promises to do better on future utility costs and his complaint that former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration was to blame for most of the problems. A May 25 front-page follow-up article providing reactions to the rate hike from state and city leaders quoted O'Malley as saying: "I wish we could have undone the damage of the last four years in the last four months."

In fact, it was the Democratic-controlled state legislature that in 1999 put in motion the utility deregulation process that set the stage for this staggering rate increase. Later, the Public Service Commission under Ehrlich was indeed led by a pro-industry chairman who failed to recognize the draconian impact for consumers. In short, there's plenty of blame to go around, and The Sun could have done a better job of recapitulating these issues in recent news stories.

One bright light on the issue came from Metro columnist Laura Vozzella, who deftly captured the new governor's shortfall in her May 25 piece, "Uh, about that affordable energy plan." Vozzella cited the specifics of O'Malley's campaign pitches, told readers how to find the actual ads online and made this salient point: "His detailed plan left out this nugget: BGE bills will be about as high as they would have been under Bob Ehrlich."

Reader Andrew Gaither responded to Vozzella: "Oh my! I read your column online and was stunned. A critical opinion of the 'boy governor' emanating from The Sun!"

From Donna Thomas: "I am so excited to see that this wasn't just completely ignored. Gov. O'Malley made a promise and then tried to blame the increase on Bob Ehrlich and it seemed all the news outlets followed what he was saying."

Another reader, Douglas Dribben, wrote a letter to the editor arguing that the media have a double standard when it comes to O'Malley and Ehrlich and the BGE rate hikes. His was the lead letter on the May 27 editorial page, but Dribben was not pleased with the outcome. A sentence he believed was crucial about O'Malley breaking his campaign promises had been deleted by Franz Schneiderman, The Sun's letters editor.

Dribben said later he thought this "gutted the letter," and also sees this as proof of The Sun's pro-O'Malley bias. Schneiderman sees the deletion as a legitimate editing decision. In my view, the sentence was important to Dribben's argument and should not have been deleted. But I also believe Schneiderman's decision to cut it was not a result of bias. The prominent placement of the letter and the generous space afforded it speak to Schneiderman's effort at fairness.

O'Malley could not have liked the June 1 Commentary page piece written by Cato Institute policy analyst Thomas A. Firey. Titled "BGE ratepayers, behold the man," the article criticized O'Malley as a politician "who makes promises and chastises opponents with no concern for fairness and honesty, and no interest in the underlying issues." It resonated with a number of readers.

Finally, The Sun's June 1 news article, "BGE rates arrive quietly," reported that the protest outside the headquarters of Constellation Energy (BGE's parent company) was muted compared with last year's rally.

Reader Louis Van Dyck reacted to the story: "I would have been there to protest at Constellation but I had to work to pay my increased electric bill. Isn't that funny?"

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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