Md. Moves To Overhaul Utilities Commission

Protesters carried a petition to the governor Friday, objecting to rate hikes.
Protesters carried a petition to the governor Friday, objecting to rate hikes. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Ann E. Marimow and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The General Assembly moved yesterday to resolve a burgeoning crisis over electricity rates with a plan to dismantle Maryland's primary regulatory agency, which lawmakers said had become beholden to power companies.

Under a bill that was rewritten and cleared a Senate committee in a single day, the legislature would mount what is in essence a hostile takeover of the Public Service Commission, dismissing its five members April 9 and taking authority to appoint four of the five replacements April 10, before electric bills are set to rise.

In the House of Delegates, another bill approved yesterday would give the state more leverage in a merger involving Maryland's largest electric company.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of the legislative action was that it gained support from Republicans, even those who have been staunch allies of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is the first Republican to govern Maryland in a generation and who now has sole power to appoint the commission's members.

Ehrlich dismissed the maneuvering as partisan politics and lawmakers "running for cover" from a system they created when they deregulated the state's energy market in 1999.

All this came on one of the busiest days of the legislative session. Hundreds of bills, including the state's $29 billion budget, came before the Senate and House of Delegates as lawmakers sought to beat a deadline for moving legislation.

And it underscores the extent to which the electricity rate increases have come to dominate the final weeks of the 90-day session. Measures once considered far more contentious -- slot machine gambling and a ban on same-sex marriage -- appear all but dead two weeks before the legislature adjourns. Others, including state spending on stem cell research, are largely resolved.

The budget, which includes a freeze of tuition rates at public universities, won final approval yesterday, a week ahead of schedule. Lawmakers also voted to restore health benefits for legal immigrants and to give tax breaks to elderly homeowners and military veterans. They rejected a first-in-the-nation bid to add homeless people to those covered by the state's hate-crimes law.

Much of the frenetic activity was driven by a deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber. With the session heading into its homestretch, the fate of several other marquee issues have become clear.

The legalization of slot machine gambling -- a priority of Ehrlich's that dominated past sessions -- recently died a quiet death after Senate leaders canceled a hearing. And, barring further court rulings, the session is likely to end without another vote on putting a same-sex marriage ban into the state Constitution.

The House, meanwhile, is poised to pass legislation this week that would make Maryland one of the first states to fund stem cell research in the wake of a 2001 executive order by President Bush that restricted federal support for the science. A bill to do that died a on the final day of last year's session amid a filibuster threat.

All but certain to pass this year as well is legislation stepping up supervision of sex offenders. A comprehensive bill has passed the House, and the Senate is expected to follow suit.

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