- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

BALTIMORE — Most Maryland voters are blaming the Democrat-controlled General Assembly rather than Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for huge increases in electricity bills set to take effect this summer, according to a poll released today.

Most Marylanders — 67 percent — agreed that the legislature is responsible for rising utility rates, including the 72 percent increases for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers, according to the poll conducted by the Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, an Annapolis-based nonpartisan polling firm.

“Anxiety over the issue is high, even among non-BGE customers,” said Patrick E. Gonzales, the firm’s president. “At this point, with no clear resolution, who they are holding responsible is the General Assembly and the power company. The governor is suffering the least politically.”

The poll found that 66 percent of voters blame Constellation Energy Group, BGE’s parent company, for the escalating electricity prices, while 45 percent blame Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican.

“I think everybody has to take responsibility for it,” said Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, Montgomery County Democrat and Finance Committee member. “You cannot blame any one group.”

Even among Democrats, a majority of whom held Constellation Energy most responsible for higher energy prices, 29 percent blamed the legislature while just 18 percent blamed the governor.

The poll also indicated Mr. Ehrlich’s job-approval rating was 50 percent, down from 53 percent in January.

His highest job-approval rating in a Gonzales poll was 57 percent in August 2003. His lowest was 49 percent in October 2005.

“If the governor was being held responsible for this crisis, it would show up in his job-approval numbers,” Mr. Gonzales said. “They wouldn’t be 50 percent.”

When the pollsters asked who was “most responsible” for the electricity crisis, 40 percent of Marylanders said Constellation Energy, 34 percent said the General Assembly, and 12 percent said the governor.

The survey of 819 registered voters was conducted from April 4 to Thursday. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

During that time, the General Assembly closed its 90-day session as the Senate killed a deal that would have capped electricity rate increases at 15 percent this year and reduced rates over 10 years with $600 million paid by BGE.

The deal also would have given rate relief to residential customers getting rate increases of 39 percent from Potomac Electric Power Co. and a 35 percent from Delmarva Power.

Mr. Ehrlich is currently brokering a new deal with BGE.

The latest proposal would keep electricity rate increases at about 15 percent this year and require the power company to pay to reduce rates. However, the governor has said he is uncertain whether BGE can still put up $600 million, but he wants a significant contribution from the company.

An announcement about the new rate-reduction agreement could come as early as this week, administration officials said.

Since the rate increases were announced March 7, energy prices have been the hottest issue in an year in which Mr. Ehrlich is seeking re-election and every General Assembly seat is open in November.

About 75 percent of Maryland voters said they were “very concerned” about rising electricity prices, the Gonzales poll shows.

The rate increase has resulted, in part, from a 1999 deregulation deal approved by the legislature under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, that capped electricity rates below market levels for six years.

Worldwide demand for energy and Hurricane Katrina’s disruption of energy supplies also have driven electricity rates higher at the same time BGE’s rate caps expire.

“This is a problem that was created, owned and operated by Maryland’s legislature, and it is not going unnoticed by Maryland’s citizens,” said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. “Over the course of seven years and 90 days, the legislature was incapable of fixing this problem and now it is up to Governor Ehrlich to get the job done.”

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