- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2006

To pay now or to pay “more on the more”later, that is the question.

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was on the mark when he said: “When you postpone reality, you compound the problem.” Which is why Maryland legislators, top to bottom, ought to hang their heads in shame for failing to provide real relief to consumers faced with electricity rate increases of thunderstorm proportions.

The General Assembly passed a hollow postponement last week and the governor is adding insult to injury by hosting a hollow “veto hearing” today. Neither accomplishes the goal of helping hard-working Marylanders pay the inevitable piper — a 72 percent increase for Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. customers and a 39 percent increase, already in effect, for Potomac Electric Power Co. customers.

There’s no way around it: Marylanders are going to have to pay market utility rates sooner or later. And what, after all these months of political mumbo-jumbo, have their elected officials come up with that provides more than political cover in an election year? Nada.

No matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat in Maryland, you must be feeling as though your elected officials are making an even bigger mess of this painful pocketbook fiasco. There is plenty enough blame to pass around.

“At the time we deregulated, everybody thought [rate caps were] a good idea,” said state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat. “Hindsight is always 20/20.” But not always helpful. All Maryland politicos can get right is their petty finger-pointing game.

In calling for today’s veto hearing at the State House from 3 to 8 p.m., Mr. Ehrlich says he wants to give Marylanders a chance to express their views on the latest legislation the General Assembly cobbled together supposedly to reduce the stench of the utility rate increases. Of course, he also wants to highlight the flaws in his competitors’ plans.

“If there’s still a line at 8 o’clock, I’m going to be there, till 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, midnight. I don’t care, I will be there,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said.

This from a man who has been dubbed “BGEhrlich” by union protesters and others who think the governor has been a little too cozy with the utility companies.

Mr. Ehrlich, who wrote an earlier energy plan that died in the regular General Assembly session and one that was killed with a lawsuit by his Democratic challenger, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, is expected to veto the bill passed in the special session last week.

This veto is vacuous given that the bill passed with a veto-proof margin. But in the political chess game, the governor hopes to score a few points by forcing Democrats back to Annapolis to override his veto.

Come November, Maryland voters ought to voice their displeasure with the whole lot with their votes.

Haven’t there already been countless hours of hearings? Is a hearing of any kind really necessary to discover whether Marylanders want to swallow astronomical increases for their electric bills? No one but the governor stands to gain from this umpteenth gabfest.

But who can blame him? The Democrats are pulling no punches to make themselves look like white knights when, in fact, it was former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, who is partly responsible for miscalculating the benefits of deregulation.

Mr. Ehrlich’s rivals for the governor’s mansion fell all over themselves last week to proclaim victory for the voters. Beating his chest, Mr. O’Malley acts like he is the big-time winner because of his successful court challenge.

We’ll see.

In last week’s special session, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed an energy plan that extends the cap on BGE rates for 11 months after a 15 percent increase July 1, disbands the embattled Ehrlich-appointed Public Service Commission (PSC) and gives oversight of the Office of the People’s Counsel to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Democrats defend their latest action by saying it provides a short-term fix by delaying the utility rate increase and a long-term fix by changing the way utility rates are set and monitored through new regulatory bodies.

“The problem with a temporary rate cap is they are doing the same thing they did in 1999, which is postpone the pain,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “If the idea … is to fool the voters for a couple of months, it is so transparent and so bad that I don’t think it is going to fool anybody.”

Robert L. Gould, spokesman for Constellation Energy Group Inc., which is BGE’s parent company, said, “The fact is, you can blow up the PSC and that isn’t going to affect the cost of electricity.” He added that the attacks on the PSC are strictly political theater.

Who knows what will be happening to energy rates or even what type of energy we will be using in 2015? Isn’t gazing into crystal balls how Maryland got in this mess in the first place? Somebody stop.

BGE would have to borrow money to pay for the postponement, which its customers would cover at the rate of $2.19 a month, $26.28 a year or $262.28 for 10 years.

Or, as a friend who lives in Silver Spring put it, “so you pay more on the more.”

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