Ehrlich Opts For Public Hearing on Energy Bill

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., shown speaking in Linthicum, said he will hold a hearing on a proposed increase in energy rates for some Maryland customers.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., shown speaking in Linthicum, said he will hold a hearing on a proposed increase in energy rates for some Maryland customers. (By Steve Ruark -- Associated Press)

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By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

In his three years as Maryland governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has issued dozens of vetoes, typically after putting legislation through a careful, personal review and conferring with a small coterie of advisers.

But this week, before deciding whether to follow his gut and reject special legislation that the General Assembly crafted to ease the sting of rising energy costs, Ehrlich will set aside custom and invoke an unusual deliberative tool: a veto hearing.

The public hearing, scheduled for five hours Tuesday afternoon, is the first in Annapolis since 1991, when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer was deciding whether to raise the speed limit on rural highways. The public hearing will enable all sides to sit before the governor and offer opinions.

"I'm going to have a very transparent, very public analysis of this bill," Ehrlich told reporters.

At stake is a proposal drafted last week during a marathon workday for members of the General Assembly, whom Ehrlich ordered into a rare special session. The bill would temporarily cap at 15 percent the amount that the state's largest electricity supplier can increase its rates. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. had planned to increase rates for more than 1 million central Maryland customers by 72 percent starting July 1.

The measure would phase in the increase, overhaul the way power companies are regulated in Maryland and remove the current members of the state's regulatory commission.

Ehrlich said he had numerous problems with the legislation but stopped short of announcing a veto and, instead, announced a public hearing. It is an approach the governor has strongly resisted in the past.

Two years ago, Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery) urged Ehrlich to hold a veto hearing before tossing out legislation to freeze university tuition. Ehrlich refused the request on the advice of one of his legislative specialists, Kenneth Masters, who called such a hearing "a very, very, very unusual practice" that was "unwise to indulge in."

Frosh said Friday that he could envision only two reasons the governor would indulge in the practice now: "Either he is looking for a back-door excuse to sign it" by announcing that he heard persuasive testimony supporting the legislation, Frosh said, "or he wants a show trial."

Republican lawmakers said they believe the governor wants to be fully informed before making his decision -- something they say could not have happened in the rush of a special session that brought the bill from rough draft to final passage in about 12 hours.

"He's wise to be deliberative and collect more information," said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus (R-Somerset), who opposes the measure.

But Democratic lawmakers, who have by their own admission been quick to see the worst in the state's first Republican governor in decades, are suspecting the worst.

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