- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — State lawmakers voted yesterday to overturn Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s veto of the Democrats’ energy plan that will postpone a 72 percent rate increase by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. but forces customers to pay interest on the deferred charges.

The company’s 1.1 million residential customers will see their bills increase 15 percent on July 1 — not the 72 percent increase to market rates set earlier this year in a wholesale electricity auction overseen by the utility-regulating Public Service Commission.

However, the money customers save will still be owed to the company, and the customers will have to repay it and about $109 million in interest over 10 years.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election this fall, said he vetoed the bill because it forces the debt and interest payments on customers.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. said the average monthly interest and debt payment of $2.19 would be canceled out by the elimination of some current fees and by future rate savings.

“There is no interest,” Mr. Miller, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said after the veto override passed his chamber without debate. “You can’t legally say that [in the bill] because it would be an unconstitutional taking under law.”

Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris told the Associated Press that Senate Republicans chose not to debate the bill because they knew Democrats had the votes to override the governor.

“There are numerous parts of this bill that are faulty,” said Mr. Harris, Baltimore County Republican. “We’re not here to work and solve a problem. We’re here for political reasons.”

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said Democrats overrode the veto to enact a “incumbent protection plan” for lawmakers that does little more than forestall the massive rate increase until after this year’s elections.

“The governor believes the legislature put the energy companies ahead of the consumers,” he said. “Citizens of Maryland do not want to be forced by the government to take out a 10-year loan against their will.”

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat and Finance Committee chairman, introduced the veto-override issue to the chamber by saying his committee supported the override and felt “it was time to move on.”

Mr. Middleton said each customer will save about $600 while rates are capped at a 15 percent increase for 11 months. “They will repay back $300,” he said. “That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

The Democrats’ plan also fires the five members of the commission effective July 1. Members are appointed by a governor, and four of the five members were appointed by Mr. Ehrlich.

A new commission is to be appointed with candidates selected by Mr. Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel County Democrat.

Mr. Miller said the list of candidates, which he said will include retired judges and Republicans, will be submitted to Mr. Ehrlich as early as next week.

The Democratic-controlled legislature overrode the veto by Mr. Ehrlich with near party-line votes of 34-10 in the Senate and 87-37 in the House.

The bill passed by similar margins — more than the three-fifths majority needed to override a veto — last week in special session. Mr. Ehrlich vetoed it Thursday.

Mr. Ehrlich said he vetoed the bill despite an almost-certain veto override because he wanted lawmakers to amend it to remove interest charges and give customers a choice of whether to participate in the plan.

Lawmakers overturned the veto without changing the bill.

The power company’s massive rate increase, which was to take effect July 1 for the utility’s 1.1 million residential customers, dominated the General Assembly session. It is also expected to be a flash point in the gubernatorial contest between Mr. Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the presumptive Democratic nominee. Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan quit the race Thursday because of clinical depression.

The bill also permits the new commission to postpone market rates again next June by devising another rate-mitigation plan. Power customers can choose whether to “opt in” to that plan.

Critics call the plan a “quick fix” similar to the 1999 deregulation laws that set the stage for this crisis.

The laws, pushed by Mr. Miller and signed by previous Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, capped rates at below-market levels as global energy prices rose.

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