Md. Assembly Revives Electric Bill Relief, Fires PSC

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Maryland General Assembly voted yesterday to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of an electricity rate relief plan, putting into law a bill that would temporarily limit the increases paid by many customers and revamp the state regulatory agency that oversees utilities.

The law will hold down the rate increase to 15 percent for 11 months for customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., which is the largest electricity supplier in the state and serves households in Anne Arundel, Howard and parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

That increase will begin July 1. The rate of increase after the 11-month period will have to be established by the state Public Service Commission.

Customers of Pepco, the dominant supplier in Montgomery and Prince George's, will receive only minor relief through the bill because they were not facing the same increase as BGE customers.

The law also fires the five members of the governor-appointed Public Service Commission, which approved a 72 percent increase for BGE customers. It stipulates that they be replaced from a list of names that Democratic leaders of the House and Senate provide to the governor.

Ehrlich, a Republican, blasted the action by the Democratic-controlled Assembly as a crass power play. "If you needed another example of the gross partisanship, the our-way-or-the-highway mentality, you have it," Ehrlich said to reporters outside the governor's mansion after the votes.

Ehrlich, who has described the revamping of the commission as unconstitutional, said he expects a lawsuit challenging the Assembly's action to be filed, possibly by the chairman of the commission, Kenneth D. Schisler. "We'll see them in court," Ehrlich said.

Republicans said the Assembly was trampling on the right of the governor to choose his own commission. "The governor is a Republican, and it's understood that he's going to appoint like-minded people," said Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County).

But Democrats said that commission members had shown more concern about the financial well-being of BGE than the effect of the rate increase on customers. "This is not how a public-minded Public Service Commission should function," said Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), the House majority leader. "I am amazed that anybody would not want to have a pro-consumer Public Service Commission."

Barve and other supporters of the bill portrayed the vote as a victory for consumers. "Do you want to pay 72 percent or 15 percent? It's not a difficult question," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "You pay less under this plan. That's the simplest way to put it."

Republicans who backed Ehrlich challenged that claim, saying that a rate increase deferral plan, which includes $109 million in interest payments that will be made over 10 years to BGE, means consumers will be paying more in the long run. "It's a cruel hoax on the citizens of Maryland who think this is going to lower their electric bill," said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), the minority whip in the House.

It is not yet clear which side is right, because the Public Service Commission will have to determine rates after 11 months.

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