Energy rebates hang in balance

The Baltimore Sun

By midnight tonight, Gov. Martin O'Malley must line up the necessary votes in the General Assembly to approve a $2 billion settlement he brokered with Constellation Energy Group or risk the deal's collapse.

State officials and Constellation, BGE's parent company, reached a settlement two weeks ago to put an end to a dispute that's been simmering since the company sought a 72 percent electricity rate increase in 2006. The deal would give consumers $170 rebates this year, plus other benefits in the future.

But the Senate's decision to amend the legislation ratifying the agreement put the deal in jeopardy. O'Malley and legislative leaders have been working to cobble together the support to get the bill passed without the change, which Constellation has signaled would nullify the deal.

"I'm hopeful," O'Malley said in an interview over the weekend. "We're going to work on Monday, and I think there should be enough support in the Senate for us to be able to return this $2 billion to consumers."

The settlement legislation is one of a raft of bills that Assembly leaders hope to complete during marathon meetings on the last day of the three-month session. Among the dozens of issues remaining are bills that would expand the state's DNA database used to investigate unsolved crimes, tighten regulation of so-called "alcopops," allow a special congressional election in Prince George's County and outlaw slot machine-like devices.

The State House has seen a last-minute flurry of activity, and some lawmakers are complaining of "legislative fatigue." They began this annual session a few weeks after finishing an intense special session in November called by O'Malley to address the state's budget woes.

"I know a lot of people out there are tired," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "It's been a long time since November to now."

With so little time left before the legislature is expected to adjourn tonight, legislative leaders hope to quickly move the House's unamended version of the Constellation settlement bill through the Senate.

The deal includes one-time $170 rebates for 1.1 million residential customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., the state's largest utility and a subsidiary of Constellation. It also would spare ratepayers the obligation to pay up to $1.5 billion in the next few decades for the eventual dismantling of nuclear power plants in Southern Maryland. The settlement also guarantees $346 million in rate credits that were the subject of dueling lawsuits by Constellation and the state.

The House of Delegates approved the legislation last week without amendments. The Senate, in a vote that reflected discontent with the state's decision to deregulate the energy industry in 1999, voted to add a provision that would require that all new power plants built in Maryland be regulated, despite warnings that the amendment would nullify the deal. Many lawmakers say deregulation has failed, citing double-digit increases in electricity bills.

"Many of them do not represent the areas served by Constellation and BGE, and they felt free to lash out," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said. "But I'm hoping that cooler heads reflect on the value of having an agreement."

Meanwhile, lawmakers have reached an agreement on O'Malley's proposal to allow police to collect DNA samples from criminal suspects, though they still have to give it final approval.

Lawmakers already changed the bill to quell concerns from the Legislative Black Caucus that the system could be used to target minorities. Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, vice chairwoman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Baltimore Democrat, said House and Senate negotiators also have agreed to let the bill expire after several years during which they can monitor how the system works.

The House has yet to move legislation seeking to ban slot-like electronic gambling devices in advance of a November referendum in which voters will decide whether to legalize 15,000 slot machines in five locations. The Senate approved the ban weeks ago.

Another unfinished House matter is a bill that would classify so-called "alcopops" - beverages such as "Mike's Hard Lemonade" and "Jack Daniel's Black Jack Cola" - as beer. The proposal would nullify an opinion from Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. He said the drinks are marketed to teenagers and should be regulated as spirits, which would subject them to higher taxes and limit their distribution.

The liquor lobby has strongly objected to those assertions, arguing that the Federal Trade Commission has found no evidence of such marketing and that classifying the beverages as beer would allow them to continue being sold in Maryland as they have for decades.

Both sides expect a fight over the bill on the House floor.

Today also is the last chance to pass a bill that would allow for a special general election in Maryland's 4th Congressional District. The seat will be vacated in June by Rep. Albert R. Wynn, who has announced plans to resign his seat in the House of Representatives to join a prominent Washington lobbying firm.

The proposal, floated by O'Malley, was necessary to ensure the district does not go for months without representation. As the law now stands, O'Malley would have had to call a special primary and special general election, but the legislation would allow him to skip the special primary.

Democratic Party activist Donna Edwards defeated Wynn in February's primary and is heavily favored in the general election. Wynn and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland have said the election, which would cost about $1 million, would allow her to enter Congress ahead of her peers, giving her priority consideration for leadership positions.

Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

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