- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday vetoed an electricity rate-relief plan passed by the General Assembly, setting up a return by lawmakers today to override the veto.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election, had been expected to veto the plan that the Democrat-controlled legislature adopted last week in a special session.

He complained that it would not give Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE) customers a choice on whether to participate in a payment plan that would include a monthly fee.

The plan was the latest of several options to address a 72 percent increase in BGE bills next month. Beginning July 1, the plan would increase by 15 percent electricity bills for BGE’s 1.1 million customers.

“I request [lawmakers to] return to work immediately on an alternative solution that will prove more consumer-friendly,” Mr. Ehrlich said yesterday afternoon in his veto message.

Legislative leaders anticipated the veto and planned to return at noon today. The General Assembly passed the rate-relief plan last week with more than enough votes to override Mr. Ehrlich’s veto.

“We have a piece of legislation that we think is the best product put forward so far,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. chided Mr. Ehrlich for the veto, promising an abbreviated session in which lawmakers would override the veto and go home.

“All he’s doing is confusing people. It’s his way of trying to be relevant … at this late date,” said Mr. Miller, Prince George’s County Democrat.

A BGE spokesman said the company would not comment on the veto.

After adopting their plan last week in a special session, lawmakers recessed rather than adjourn. That means the General Assembly can meet again easily to resume the session.

Mr. Ehrlich’s veto was the latest shot in what has become a protracted battle over the electricity rates. The legislature capped rates when it partially deregulated the electricity market in 1999. Those caps now are expiring.

The sharp price increase for customers of the state’s largest utility left politicians scrambling to find a way to ease the increase. They considered but could not agree on a plan before adjourning the regular legislative session in April.

Mr. Ehrlich then proposed relief that would have set up a payment plan but would have allowed customers to opt out and pay the whole increase when it went into effect.

The governor’s plan was put on hold by a lawsuit by the city of Baltimore, whose Democratic mayor, Martin O’Malley, is challenging Mr. Ehrlich for governor.

Lawmakers returned to Annapolis last week to adopt a third payment plan, a bill that also would fire the utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC).

Mr. Ehrlich criticized the legislature’s most recent plan, saying his was better. He held a public hearing Tuesday to gauge reaction to the bill and pronounced the legislation flawed, saying it “clearly left pro-consumer provisions on the table.”

The energy bill would extend a cap on BGE’s rates for 11 months after a 15 percent increase July 1. Customers would be enrolled automatically in the plan, and BGE rates would reach market-level prices in January 2008.

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.

Under the bill, BGE customers eventually will pay higher market prices for electricity while 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 currently in BGE statements would be cut to offset the debt and interest payments.

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