Friday, March 6, 2009

Public Campaign Financing Included in Miller-Backed Bill

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) will join forces with some progressive groups today to announce campaign finance legislation that includes both an increase in contribution limits and a pilot program for public financing of legislative campaigns.

Miller has blocked previous efforts to allow public financing of campaigns, citing concerns about the cost. The House of Delegates has been far friendlier to such efforts.

The bill, to be unveiled today, would rely on revenue from a voluntary checkoff on state income tax forms. In the 2014 election cycle, fewer than a quarter of the candidates running for General Assembly seats would be allowed to participate in the pilot program, according to a person familiar with the bill.

The limit on what an individual is allowed to contribute to a candidate would increase from $4,000 to $4,400 per election cycle; what an individual may give to all state candidates would go from $10,000 to $15,000. The limit on contributions by political committees would increase from $6,000 to $6,600.

Other provisions include one that would limit contributions from companies controlled by the same person, according to the person familiar with the bill.

Miller will join Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), a longtime champion of public financing, in sponsoring the legislation, which is supported by Common Cause and Progressive Maryland. Both organizations put out news releases yesterday touting the bill.

-- John Wagner

Hearing on Rising Utility Bills Yields Little Hope of Relief

Lawmakers waded yesterday into the thicket of why utility bills across Maryland are surging this winter, but they didn't appear to resolve much.

Douglas Nazarian, the state's chief utility regulator, told members of two Senate committees that he is concerned about a potential "tsunami" of gas and electric cutoffs April 1, because more than 100,000 residential customers are behind on their bills. That date marks the end of winter restrictions on shut-offs.

Nazarian, chairman of the Public Service Commission, said the PSC is weighing a moratorium on shut-offs. But he acknowledged that such a move would only delay the pain for customers who are behind on their bills.

Nazarian and utility officials were summoned to Annapolis to explain to lawmakers why so many constituents are calling them with complaints about high bills. The PSC has received 3,350 complaints this year from customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric, Pepco and Washington Gas.

Utility officials blamed this winter's cold weather, longer billing cycles in December and customers' increased use of high-tech gadgets. Nazarian told lawmakers, however, that utilities have not provided a "wholly satisfying" answer at hearings before the Public Service Commission.

Some frustrated lawmakers said they are not satisfied with the explanation. "What do you say to many of my constituents who haven't changed anything and their bills doubled?" said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden (D-Baltimore). "They're low-income seniors, and they don't have a fancy Xbox or any of those gadgets."

BGE Vice President Wayne Harbaugh said that even if usage doesn't change, the colder weather can force a furnace or heat pump to work harder, costing the customer more money. He said the company is encouraging customers in arrears to conserve energy and to sign up for payment plans that spread out their costs.

-- Lisa Rein

Tax Hike Rejected by Panel Of Pr. George's Delegates

A subcommittee of the Prince George's House delegation voted 4 to 0 yesterday to recommend killing an unpopular bill that would result in higher property taxes.

They took the vote even though County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), who proposed the bill, had said he is no longer pushing it.

The bill would have raised the cap on homestead property tax increases from 5 to 10 percent. But Johnson has recently said he believes that the county's severe budget woes can be solved in other ways, including through a state measure to divert $60 million in surplus from the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Johnson had resisted efforts to kill the bill outright, however, arguing that he wanted to have it available in case budget numbers worsen.

But Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's), who chairs the subcommittee, said he thought that residents "deserved a response to their involvement with this issue" through a vote.

-- Rosalind S. Helderman

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