- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — A special session of the Democrat-controlled General Assembly early today passed a plan that would create a new panel of state utility regulators and postpone a 72-percent rate increase by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (BGE) until after the fall elections.

At 12:40 a.m., the House voted 109-26 for the 60-page bill, approved earlier by the Senate in a 36-11 vote. The number of the bill’s supporters in both chambers is more than enough to override an anticipated veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

At 4:37 a.m., the legislature passed a bill that would stiffen penalties for sex offenders — legislation supported by the governor that had failed to pass during the General Assembly’s regular 90-day session.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election this fall, decided last night to veto the energy plan, bucking top advisers who warned against the move, according to a state official close to the deliberations.

The governor is planning a TV ad campaign to get out his message that the plan risks bankrupting the power company and driving energy prices higher, the official said.

Rising electricity rates became a major issue in the waning days of the General Assembly, and lawmakers raced to craft legislation to reduce the impact in time to campaign for November’s elections. The higher rates have resulted, in part, from increased worldwide demand and the expiration of rate caps set by 1999 deregulation laws enacted by the legislature.

Meanwhile, the leading Democratic candidates for governor — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan — have expressed support for the legislature’s plan.

The energy plan would extend a cap on BGE’s rates for 11 months after a 15 percent increase July 1.

It also would allow Democratic leaders to fire the members of the utility-regulating Public Service Commission and select new commissioners. It also would expand the PSC’s authority to regulate power companies, dictate operations of power plants and set energy prices.

Lawmakers have blamed the PSC’s five members — four of whom were appointed by Mr. Ehrlich — for approving BGE’s 72 percent rate increase. That increase is set to take effect July 1.

The energy bill also would impose conditions on a proposed $11 billion merger of Constellation Energy Group, BGE’s parent company, and Florida utility FPL Group Inc.

Under the bill, BGE rates would reach market-level prices in January 2008.

However, the bill would allow the new PSC to stave off market rates again next June by devising yet another rate-mitigation plan. Customers could chose whether to “opt-in” to that plan.

BGE’s 1.1 million residential customers would be enrolled automatically in the plan approved this morning. They eventually will pay the higher market prices for electricity while also making payments for deferred charges in $2.19 monthly installments for 10 years — a total of $263.

However, the legislation would eliminate $2.83 in fees now contained in monthly BGE statements.

The General Assembly’s day, which began at 10 a.m. yesterday, extended into this morning because of lengthy delays, many of which were caused by longer-than-normal waits to have bills printed.

The printing office, one State House staff member said, was understaffed, angering Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

At 2:06, Mr. Miller informed senators they would have to wait two more hours while staffers rewrote the sex offender bill and had it printed.

“This is insane,” said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., Baltimore Democrat.

Many lawmakers slept on the Senate and House floors during the delay. Others sat in small groups and talked.

The sex-offender bill would establish a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-degree sex crimes against children and a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for second-degree crimes. It also would require closer tracking of sexual predators.

However, advocates for tougher punishment said the bill falls short of the standard known as Jessica’s Law, which has been passed in 20 states, because it would allow sexual predators to receive parole in some cases.

“It may be a good step in the right direction,” said Stacie D. Rumenap, executive director of Stop Child Predators, a nonprofit dedicated to the passage of Jessica’s Law in all 50 states.

Jessica’s Law is named for Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Florida girl who was raped and killed last year by a convicted sex offender.

Mrs. Rumenap said a stricter bill “should be considered next year, so we can actually pass a strong, 25-year mandatory minimum for those heinous crimes criminals are committing against children.”

Alan Friedman, one of Mr. Ehrlich’s top aides, said parole is rarely given to first- and second-degree sex offenders.

House Majority Whip Anthony G. Brown, a Prince George’s County Democrat who is Mr. O’Malley’s running mate, said the bill is “good politics and good policy.”

“It is always important, if you are in an election year or not, to put forward good policy,” Mr. Brown said.

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