- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Scores of Marylanders yesterday urged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to veto the energy plan passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature last week in a special session.

“I’m hoping you veto this with the biggest red pen you have,” Fred Phelps, a retired Maryland State Police trooper, told the governor at the rare veto hearing.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election in the fall, likely will veto the bill that would fire the governor-appointed Public Service Commission (PSC) that regulates utilities, partially reregulate the state’s energy industry and postpone a 72 percent rate increase by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE).

The bill passed with enough votes to overturn a veto, but Mr. Ehrlich could be hoping the public outcry yesterday will whittle away some of the support for the bill.

“Today I am confronted with a decision,” Mr. Ehrlich said, “sign the bill that emerged from the special session or veto it and ask for the Assembly to provide a more consumer-friendly product — one that provides consumer choice with no interest.”

The chief complaint by Mr. Phelps and other BGE customers who testified against the bill during the five-hour hearing was that it forces them to pay off deferred charges plus interest over 10 years.

“People should have a choice, and no interest should be paid on any deferral,” said Carol Clements, executive director of the Victoria Q. Adams Fuel Fund in Baltimore, one of the country’s oldest energy assistance programs for the poor. “We are being priced out of the basics.”

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers helda press conference to criticize Mr. Ehrlich for staging the hearing with what they characterized as hand-picked opponents of the bill.

“They are folks the governor knows will support his position,” said Delegate Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who led the push for a special session.

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said that anyone could sign up to testify and that at least 170 persons did so unsolicited by the administration. “Anybody who walks in can testify,” he said. “It is as simple as that.”

Mr. Ehrlich, who was joined at the hearing by Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele and the Cabinet, also heard testimony from Marylanders who didn’t want the governor to veto the bill.

“I thought about all the options, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t afford a 72 percent increase right now,” said Kimberly Sheridan, who described herself as a low-income Baltimore resident.

She said the jump in energy prices, which was set to take effect July 1, would make her give up her “phone or major food groups” to pay for electricity.

Several legal and regulatory specialists testified that the bill would have the positive effect of allowing public scrutiny of the price-setting process for energy but warned that the legislative takeover of the PSC would violate the Maryland Constitution.

The energy plan would extend a cap on BGE’s rates for 11 months after a 15 percent increase July 1, when rate caps imposed as part of the 1999 deregulation laws expire.

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 another rate-mitigation plan. Customers could choose whether to “opt in” to that plan.

BGE’s 1.1 million residential customers would be enrolled automatically in the plan and 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 per customer.

The $2.83 in monthly fees now contained in BGE statements would be cut.

Critics call the bill a “quick fix” similar to the 1999 deregulation laws that set the stage for the current energy crisis. Those laws, pushed by legislative leaders and signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, capped rates below market levels as global energy prices rose.

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