David Nitkin on state politics issues

BGE ratesPaul, Baltimore: Do you think the increase in fuel cost has anything to do with the requested rate hike? The cost of gasoline went from a national average of $0.94 [a gallon] in 1999 to $2.55 currently. Could that be the reason for the rate increase?

Nitkin: This is according to Paul Adams, our lead reporter on [Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.] issues:

The rising cost of fuel burned to make electricity has everything to do with the rate increase. Even without deregulation, BGE's rates would have to go up -- it's just a question of how much. Remember, BGE is not making a windfall off of this increase. In fact, after July 1, the company will make a tiny 0.9 percent profit off of the cost of the electricity that is delivered to customers. After taxes, that amounts to about $12 million of the company's $170 million annual profit.

The company makes the vast majority of its profit from the fee it charges to deliver electricity over its power lines and to your house. That rate is the same as it has been since 1993 and is not going up after July 1, when the rate caps come off.

Dave, Bel Air: David, I enjoy reading your column. [I] don't agree with your politics (now come on, you are a Democrat) but respect your views and opinions. Try to give the governor a break on the BGE crisis. The Democrats created the problem, not the governor and [the Public Service Commission] chairman. Seems like legislature members are causing the problems with resolving the interest with BGE and Constellation.

Nitkin: No one is accusing Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler of creating the problem of rate hikes. And you are certainly correct that the deregulation legislation that led to the current situation was passed by a legislature controlled by Democrats and signed by Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening. But critics of the current governor's response say not enough has been done for consumers to mitigate the price increase.

BGE and Constellation are well-represented in Annapolis with many high-paid lobbyists. And the governor's comments that he wants the PSC and other agencies to take a morebusiness-friendly approach to operations has, rightly or wrongly, raised the suspicion of some consumer advocates.

Mya, Turner's Station: I feel as though this 72 percent BGE hike is just wrong. Isn't theminimum wage in Maryland too low for the cost of living? I'm sure a lot of people who are considered middle class will be struggling to pay their bills after this hike.

Nitkin: Maryland's minimum wage is now $6.15 an hour. One group, Progressive Maryland, calculates that a "living wage" -- which would be the hourly wage needed to provide food, housing, utilities and other necessities for a family -- would be slightly more than $11 an hour.

Part of the reason that many politicians are scrambling to find a solution to the 72 percent BGE rate hike is that they know that many of their constituents will have a hard time paying the bills.

Larry Smith, Baltimore: If the legislature can appoint members to the PSC, whereis the separation of powers?

Nitkin: The Public Service Commission is currently an independent agency within the executive branch of government.

The General Assembly has drafted a plan that would fire the five current members of the commission and replace them with two members appointed by the Senate, two by the House of Delegates and one appointed by the governor -- certainly a shift from executive control tolegislative control. Some might call it a power grab.

The issues of separation of powers is getting a lot of attention in Annapolis. This is what Tom Dennison of the Gazette reported last week:

"Joseph M. Getty, a policy adviser to Ehrlich, gave The Gazette a packet of information on Wednesday showing how Democrats have eroded long-standing powers of the state's chief executive during the past four legislative sessions.

"Getty developed a spreadsheet titled 'Legislation That Limits Gubernatorial Power' that listed more than 30 bills.

"'The General Assembly has approached this term as a four-year process of hostility to the executive,' said Getty, a former delegate from Carroll County. 'The General Assembly has been absolutely unable to make the transition to shared power with the Republican executive.'"

[A retired BGE employee], Baltimore: BGE knew the rate caps were coming off and they would have to buy on the open market long before this year. Why didn't they, in goodconsciousness, approach the PSC and advise them of the impending projected costs? BGE has made a profit every year since deregulation in 1999.

Nitkin: BGE and the Public Service Commission have been warning and worrying of the price rise for some time. But until the company's recent auction to buy electricity, the problem was abstract. Now it is concrete.

A baltimoresun.com reader from Belcamp: Do the governor and the other lawmakers, who have apparently known about what problems are going to occur if this rate increase occurs, know that their "cushy," well-paying jobs could be on the line if they don't come up with a solution for this problem? I don't think they realize how tough it's going to be for theaverage citizen to make these increased payments just to keep the lights and heat on. Their salaries will be able to afford the increase, whereas ours are another story.

Nitkin: Politicians know all too well that they could feel the wrath of voters on this issue. That's why they are scrambling for a solution.

Slots/gamblingJohn, Columbia: With all the discussion about gambling (and given the fact that the state already has gambling vis-a-vis the lottery and various bingo parlors), has there been any substantive look at adding casino gaming? (Detroit, Atlantic City and New Orleans allhave it.) I ask because to simply add slots simply lumps Maryland into a slots pool of all the bordering states save for Virginia.

To that, is there any legal mechanism (or if so, any thought given) to have the slots/gambling issue put on the ballot as a referendum/ballot measure and let the voters decide what they want? I confess to not knowing the legality of a referendum/ballot measure.

Nitkin: In Maryland, there is no right for citizens to petition issues to referendum, unlike in states such as California, where the practice is common. Constitutional amendments approved by the Assembly do go before voters as referendum questions. There was some talk in 2004 of amending the state constitution to allow slot machines, but Ehrlich was opposed, saying at the time that the state constitution should not be tinkered with lightly.

Steven Wallach, Columbia: Why are they not working out a slots bill? [House Speaker Michael E.] Busch and Ehrlich will both lose the November elections because of this issue.

Nitkin: It's hard to imagine that slots will be a defining issue in the 2006 elections, given the state's current budget surplus, the fatigue that many politicians feel over the protracted debate on the issue, and the fact that Pennsylvania's slots facilities won't be up and running anytime soon.

DixonJamie Kelley, Locust Point: On March 12, The Sun went public with a storyabout Sheila Dixon and her involvement with $600,000 worth of work that was paid without a contract to someone who was related to her campaign. Follow-up stories talked about the possibility of an ethics violation, and we have since heard that there has been legal action against parties that are involved.

Why has this process taken so long? It seems that a review of this problem is a pretty cut-and-dried process and if Dixon did indeed break from ethics guidelines, then she should be removed from office. Has there been precedent for ethics breaches in the past, and if so,what was the timeline and who was involved?

Nitkin: Here's one past example: In early December 1997, The Sun reported that state Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, had been using his Senate office to run a private consulting business. His clients included firms seeking state contracts.

The General Assembly named a special investigator (Jervis Finney, a former U.S. attorney and now counsel to Ehrlich), and within five weeks, the legislature's Ethics Committee concluded that Young abused his office and recommended that he be expelled from the stateSenate. The expulsion vote came Jan. 16, 1998.

Young was indicted in December 1998 on extortion, bribery and filing a false tax return charges. He was acquitted by a jury in September 1999 and is now considering running for the Senate again.

Steele/Senate raceAlan, Mount Airy: Why do we keep hearing this myth about [Lt. Gov.] Michael S. Steele's success story? Even The New York Times bought into it in an article in its Sunday magazine recently. Steele failed the bar exam, so he can't practice law in Maryland; he got into trouble when he tried to handle his sister's divorce from Mike Tyson. His consulting firm never made a profit, and the Republicans had to pay him a salary to be their candidate for lieutenant governor so he could support his family.

While he was state Republican chairman, his party lost every statewide election. When he ran for the Republican nomination for state comptroller in 1998, he finished third even though he had the endorsement of the gubernatorial candidate, Ellen Sauerbrey. Some success story. He failed at everything he's ever been involved in. When can we expect some real scrutiny by the media of Steele's career?

Nitkin: Steele has received a fair amount of scrutiny, and he will get even more in the months ahead. Everything you mention has been reported in The Sun. Steele has passed the bar in Pennsylvania and has a compelling personal story.

Born into a working-class family, his mother was a laundress who refused to go on welfare because she did not want the government raising her children. He was on the verge of flunking out of Johns Hopkins University but refocused his efforts to get a degree. Hiscampaign for Senate is focusing on that personal story, but his opponents will be sure to point out -- as you do -- his professional record.

Thomas, Baltimore: I have a question about Steele. According to his official biography, he practiced as an associate at a prominent D.C. law firm for six years. However, I haven't found any information that indicates he ever passed the bar for Maryland or D.C.Something clearly isn't adding up -- would you clarify this for me?

Nitkin: Steele passed a bar examination in Pennsylvania.

Ron, Bethesda: Is Dennis Rasmussen still running for the U.S. Senate? We haven't heard anything from him since his announcement. Thanks.

Nitkin: I assume Rasmussen is still running for U.S. Senate, but I, too, haven't heard much from his campaign since his announcement. Rasmussen said at the time that he planned to continue his Annapolis lobbying activities, and the General Assembly session ends Monday. I assume that lobbying during the session has taken most of Rasmussen's time during the past 90 days.

Governor's raceA baltimoresun.com reader: How can anyone reasonably claim that [Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's] message is resonating with Maryland voters when [Baltimore] Mayor [Martin] O'Malley leads his him by double digits in every major poll that has been released, including the most recent poll where the mayor and Duncan are runningneck and neck in Montgomery County, Duncan's home territory? Isn't it time for Duncan to drop out of the race so that the Democrats can unite behind O'Malley? If now is not the time, when do you think Duncan will drop out?

Nitkin: It's hard to imagine him dropping out of the race. There's too much time until the September primary, and anything could happen. However, if he continues to be perceived as trailing in the race, he will have a difficult time raising money, and thus a difficult time buying television ads to deliver his message.

David, Annapolis: Why does The Sun continue to inaccurately refer to lieutenant governor candidate [Del.] Anthony [G.] Brown as a veteran of the war in Iraq,rather than as a "noncombat" veteran of the war in Iraq? Brown was not on the front lines in Iraq and was not a combat soldier. Doesn't The Sun give a misleading impression and do a real disservice to Maryland voters by omitting this critical piece of information?

Nitkin: Brown, a lawyer, left his wife and family for the better part of a year to serve in Iraq as a judge advocate general. We've reported on the nature of his service before. I did a Lexis-Nexis search -- which includes magazine and journal articles and official transcripts of government and Pentagon briefings -- to see if the term "noncombat veteran" is commonly used when referring to soldiers who served in Iraq. I found just three instances in the past year when the terms "noncombat veteran" and "Iraq" appeared in the same piece. Two of those were letters to the editor. It appears to me that neither news organizations nor the government frequently make the distinction you suggest we make.

ElectionsJim Baldridge, Baltimore: Do you have, or know of, a list of candidates, especially statewide and federal, for the 2006 elections? Thanks very much.

Nitkin: The Maryland state Board of Elections has a list of candidates who have filed for office. Go here, and click on the link for "listing of filed candidates."

Bernard L. Jones, Westminster: What is the current status of the Carroll County redistricting map? (Five districts with five commissioners versus three commissioners countywide.)

Nitkin: According to Mary Gail Hare, one of our Carroll County reporters, the House of Delegates passed legislation dividing the county into five commissioner districts, a plan known as Option One. The bill is now in the Senate, where Sen. Larry E. Haines expects smooth passage. Many residents, county and town officials favored a different plan, known asOption 2, according to Hare's reporting.

Cate, Baltimore: Why isn't [it] ever said: The old men of politics need toretire? [Comptroller William Donald] Schaefer, [former Gov. Marvin] Mandel, [Attorney General J. Joseph] Curran, etc. -- move over. No wonder others don't want to be involved.

Besides, if anyone thinks a 75-year-old is as sharp and innovative, and just plain open to change, as a 50-year-old ... well, they need to think again. What is wrong with Maryland on this issue? Ever since the beloved Louis Goldstein, it seems like the goal is to die in office atthe age of 100. Seriously, these men and women -- [Sen. Barbara A.] Mikulski is getting upthere, too -- are not necessarily representative of their constituents, most of whom are younger.

Nitkin: This is a frequent topic of debate in political circles. There are many upwardly mobile politicians, such as Tom Perez, the Montgomery County Council president, and Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney in Prince George's County, who would like to move into moreprominent political positions but who have put their desires on hold out of respect for current office-holders. Many observers feel that Paul Sarbanes, Maryland's longest serving senator, handled the issue in the right way when he announced in early 2005 that he would not be seeking re-election.

IssuesJohn, Maryland: Do you think something will happen with Maryland state pension reform this legislative session? We are the worst in the country right now.

Nitkin: I'm not sure if lawmakers will reach consensus on this issue before adjourning Monday, but our reporters will be tracking it, and we will cover the debate and the resolution.

Melinda, Fells Point: David, I was reading in The Sun's talk section about Steele's identity theft. One of the bloggers pointed out that the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] staffer that stole Steele's identity went to school with The Sun reporter who wrote the recent stories on this. Isn't that a serious conflict?

Are [Sun reporter] Jennifer Skalka and Lauren Weiner friends? How can The Sunexplain their connection and the appropriateness of someone reporting on someone they went to school with who pleaded guilty [to] a crime?

Nitkin: Medill journalism school at Northwestern is a large institution. Skalka and Weiner do not know each other. Skalka was a graduate student when Weiner was an undergraduate; their paths never crossed, and Skalka spent only limited time in Evanston, Ill., moving on to assignments in Chicago and Washington. There's no connection.

Bias assessmentTim, Millington: David, you're ridiculous. Two weeks in a row, I submit a question regarding the professions of state politicians' spouses and/or children, and two weeks in a row, you completely ignore it.

This is the "typical biased coverage" that you hear so many complaints about. It's not always that what you cover is inherently biased, but it's what you don't cover that illustrates bias. Once you realize that, you'll actually be one step closer to being a stand-up journalist.

Nitkin: We report on spouses and children of politicians when their employment is newsworthy. It has been well-reported, for example, that O'Malley's wife is Baltimore Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley. Far from engaging in biased coverage, The Sun has fully reported the ethical challenges raised by this situation. In January 2002, for example, thepaper reported: "A state judicial ethics panel has decided that the family ties of new Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, wife of Mayor Martin O'Malley, make it improper for her to hear at least two-thirds of the entire docket.

O'Malley, who's also the daughter of Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., said she is "perplexed" and upset by the opinion, which concludes that cases calling for police witnesses, among others, should be off-limits to her because of an appearance of partiality."

Questions about the careers of political spouses have been in the news recently. Questions have been raised about the appropriateness of first lady Kendel Ehrlich working for Comcast, which is regulated by the state. To say, "Well, what about the jobs of other relatives of politicians, especially those on the state payroll?" does little to address the question at hand.

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