- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

Maryland lawmakers will work through the weekend to prepare for next week’s special session, where they intend to cut an electricity rate increase, reorganize a regulatory agency and craft tougher restrictions on sex offenders.

“It’s still a work in progress,” said state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Eastern Shore Republican.

The Democrat-controlled General Assembly is set to caucus Monday, hold bill hearings Tuesday and reconvene Wednesday to create legislation that would phase in or cut Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s 72 percent rate increase, which will affect BGE’s 1.1 million residential customers beginning July 1.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, has called for a special session to revive a House-approved rate-stabilization plan that died in the Senate during the legislature’s 90-day session.

That plan would increase BGE’s rates by 15 percent next month and gradually allow them to reach market level by January 2008. It also would obligate Constellation Energy Group, BGE’s parent company, to reduce rates by $600 million over 10 years, cutting about $3 off the average monthly bill.

Mr. Pipkin, who has participated in energy-rate negotiations, said lawmakers also are planning to fire the governor-appointed members of the utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC) and appoint their own commissioners. Lawmakers have criticized the PSC for approving BGE’s rate increase, which the utility says reflects current energy costs.

In addition, the legislature could try to retrieve $528 million in “stranded costs” from Constellation Energy. Residential consumers paid $140 million and commercial consumers paid $388 million in anticipation of a devaluation of the company’s nuclear power plants. However, the plants went up in value.

Mr. Pipkin also noted that lawmakers could try to recover or eliminate the decommissioning costs for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant, which already has cost customers about $400 million and will continue to cost about $20 million a year.

What’s more, he said, the General Assembly could instruct the attorney general to stop Constellation Energy’s $11 billion merger with Florida utility FPL Group Inc.

The merger has been put on hold by both companies because of uncertainty about Maryland’s political and regulatory environment. BGE and Constellation Energy officials have threatened to sue the state government if it interferes in the merger.

Lawmakers also could cut about $18 million a year that consumers pay to BGE in administration fees, Mr. Pipkin said. The fees were approved under the deregulation plan in 1999 and pay BGE for the administrative cost of purchasing power from Constellation Energy.

Some lawmakers fear the special session will only provide short-term solutions without fixing the long-term problem.

“It’s not enough to just push it under the carpet until after the election,” said Delegate Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat who led the petition drive to force a special session before Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and House Speaker Michael E. Busch were considering it.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat, said he is not surprised that there are divergent views about the energy crisis.

“You saw how difficult it was in the session to get everyone together to agree on something,” Mr. Middleton said.

However, he said lawmakers’ recent experiences on the campaign trail, where they experienced voter anger firsthand, may put pressure on them to reach an agreement in the special session.

“There is a sentiment out there,” Mr. Middleton said. “The average voters out there, especially in the BGE service area, are ticked off that something wasn’t done [during the regular session].”

Mr. Miller also told the Annapolis Capital that he will revive legislation to strengthen penalties for sex offenders.

The bill, which like the electricity rates measure failed during the session’s last day, would set 25 years in prison for people convicted of first-degree rape or sexual assault of a minor.

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