Bickering Resumes on Utilities

By Ann E. Marimow and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 11, 2006

Maryland's Republican governor pinned blame for looming electricity rate increases on Democratic legislators yesterday, and lawmakers pointed instead at the state utility commission appointed by the governor.

"The plan hatched by the General Assembly and the administration in 1999 has failed," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said from the front lawn of the governor's mansion. "It's now up to all of us to fix what's clearly broken."

Democrats fired back, calling the utility commissioners brought in by Ehrlich "lackeys" for large power companies and questioning whether the governor had intentionally cleared out experienced state employees who could have protected consumers.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) said the appointees "have no background to be doing this and appear to be rolling over and playing dead for the utility companies."

Yesterday's clash could be just the start as the governor and lawmakers try to cobble together a plan in the final month of the legislative session to head off rate increases of as much as 72 percent.

The five-member Public Service Commission said Tuesday that the typical household electricity bill for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s 1.1 million customers would rise $743 a year when rate caps expire in July. Starting in June, the average bill for Pepco's 500,000 residential customers is expected to increase by 38.5 percent, or $468, a year.

A day after the governor pledged not to "play the blame game," the message from his office was that the fault lay with Democrats.

Miller and other legislative leaders said the commission, an independent agency that reviews rate increases, has been weakened by Ehrlich's appointments and by politically motivated dismissals of longtime staff members.

Two years ago, Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler unilaterally fired five of the agency's senior staff, including the chief hearing examiner, chief engineer and director of accounting investigations. Dismissals there and at the Office of the People's Counsel -- which protects consumer interests in utility matters -- helped touch off a partisan dispute over the governor's personnel practices.

Former employees of both agencies came before a special legislative panel recently, and several said they believed they were fired to make way for a more lax regulatory environment.

Schisler, who was appointed by Ehrlich in 2003, has said those decisions were based on public policy, not politics. He defended the agency's staff yesterday, calling it as "experienced and professional as ever to serve the citizens of Maryland."

The former Eastern Shore delegate was a member of the House committee that helped design the deregulation to a free-market system. But he said Miller, the Senate leader, had more control over the final product than he did.

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