- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Maryland candidates for governor and the U.S. Senate are scrambling for ideas on how to prevent astronomic electricity-rate increases in the summer and say the issue will play a prominent role in both races.

The Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. plans to increase rates by 72 percent in July, the expiration date for artificial caps imposed by state legislators in 1999 to ease Maryland’s move into deregulation.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and his opponent in the Democratic primary, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, think the state should force the utility company to reduce rate increases by threatening to delay or even block a merger involving parent company Constellation Energy Group Inc.

Mr. O’Malley has told Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, that the state has “clear” authority to intercede in the $11 billion merger with the Florida Power and Light Co.

Constellation’s attorneys have told the state’s Public Service Commission that the deal cannot be stopped.

Mr. Ehrlich spent Monday in meetings on the issue, said spokesman Henry Fawell.

“Now is the time for solutions, not rhetoric,” Mr. Fawell said.

The increase is expected to be about $743 a year, or $62 a month, for an average customer. The commission has proposed allowing low-income families to defer increased payments and instead pay 5 percent interest on their current rate.

The Senate candidates are focusing on the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Many electric plants are powered by oil. The increasing price of oil — exacerbated by the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina — has played a large role in driving up the cost of electricity.

A spokesman for Kweisi Mfume, a Democratic candidate for the Senate, said the United States deserves some relief because it has helped protect members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

“It’s time for the president to go to the board of OPEC and say, ‘Look, we want a discount. We’re paying for your security. You need to give us a break on costs,’” said Walter Ludwig, a spokesman for Mr. Mfume, who is a former congressman and ex-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the likely Republican candidate for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, is focused on innovative ways to “lower energy costs and decrease our reliance on foreign sources of oil,” his spokeswoman said.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat and the leading candidate in the Senate race, said: “We must make a real commitment to become energy independent and give consumers better energy options, including greater access to renewable sources of energy and more efficient products.”

Lise Van Susteren, a forensic psychiatrist running for the Senate, said that if elected she would support only appointees to the commission who have “a record of standing up for consumers — not lobbyists for the utilities.”

Mrs. Van Susteren also said she would oppose efforts to “further deregulate” the energy industry.

“For the short term, I support federal assistance to help low-income Marylanders with their energy bills this summer,” she said.

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