Bill to Slow Utility Rate Increases Is Approved
Thursday, June 15, 2006
The General Assembly responded yesterday to widespread anger over sharply rising electricity rates with legislation that would bring not only short-term relief but also a wholesale restructuring of the way utilities are regulated in Maryland.
In a rare special session, lawmakers tackled two combustible issues: one aimed at easing the sting of electricity rate increases and the other intended to better track violent sexual predators.
Leaders in both chambers reached accord on strict new sentences for sex offenders who target minors. The Senate approved the power industry bill by a veto-proof 36 to 11 votes, and the House of Delegates followed suit with a veto-proof vote of 109 to 26.
"It all came together in the end," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "It was amazing."
Lawmakers backed a heavy dose of rate relief and pushed a plan to dismiss all five members of the Public Service Commission, the regulatory panel appointed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) that approved a 72 percent rate increase for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
The lawmakers also squeezed small concessions from Pepco, the dominant supplier in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, although they may result in only a few pennies of monthly savings for the average ratepayer.
"It's an issue of fairness," said Sen. P.J. Hogan (D-Montgomery), who sought to include Pepco customers in the rate relief plan. "We're helping people out in the short term, and we're helping them out in the long term with a new PSC that puts the public back in Public Service Commission."
Separately, lawmakers brokered a deal on new restrictions for registered sex offenders, a problem for a legal system ill equipped to deal with predators who, in some instances, have a high likelihood of committing new offenses on release.
Passage of that bill would enable Ehrlich to emerge from the special session with at least one clear legislative win. He promoted the issue as a priority and had been criticizing Democratic lawmakers lately for allowing the issue to remain unresolved when the legislature adjourned in April.
But Democrats said they believe the political fallout of the special session will be a blow to Ehrlich's reelection bid. Although he played a significant role during weeks of negotiations over a succession of rate-relief plans, the governor had almost no involvement in yesterday's plan.
For much of the day, the state's largest labor unions had protesters picketing in front of the governor's mansion, waving a large banner that read "BGEhrlich."
The governor remained cloistered in his office. On Tuesday, he repeatedly called the legislative plan "terrible" for consumers and even worse for the state's business climate. At times he warned it could lead to California-style rolling blackouts.