- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

Impending increases in electricity bills will bring Maryland in line with average energy costs in the region, but that hasn’t stopped the political blame game over the hit to voters’ wallets.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, has borne the brunt of the attacks from the Democratic-controlled legislature, the state Democratic Party, his gubernatorial rivals and even longtime supporters.

“The governor’s focus hasn’t been on finger pointing and it hasn’t been on casting blame,” Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said yesterday. “It has been on working with legislative leaders to mitigate the 72 percent rate increase. Period.”

Mr. Ehrlich has pledged to block rate increases that will boost the average electric bill by more than $700 a year.

The energy-rate increases set to take effect this summer — 72 percent for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE), 39 percent for Potomac Electric Power Co. and 35 percent for Delmarva Power — are partly the result of a 1999 utility-deregulation plan passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly and signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

Mr. Ehrlich blamed the “flawed” 1999 plan, which set rate caps that kept electric bills artificially low for the past six years and discouraged competition from entering Maryland’s partially deregulated utility market.

Last summer, residential customers paid an average of 11.72 cents per kilowatt-hour in the Mid-Atlantic region, according to the Edison Electric Institute, an electric utility association.

However, BGE customers paid an average 9.251 cents per kilowatt-hour last summer, according to the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities.

BGE’s planned increase to 14.834 cents per kilowatt-hour should bring its prices up to current market rates, said Jason Cuevas of the Edison Electric Institute.

Still, the Maryland Democratic Party is airing a 60-second radio spot blaming Mr. Ehrlich for higher electric bills.

“Governor Ehrlich should be solving our problems, but he keeps dropping the ball and he keeps costing you money,” the add says. “Putting special interests ahead of Maryland families — It’s the Ehrlich way.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman yesterday sent e-mail to supporters touting the ad’s success and seeking $10,000 in donations to keep the spot on the air.

“Help us raise funds necessary to keep our radio advertisement on the air and pressure Governor Ehrlich to act now and stop the ‘Ehrlich Electric Rate Hike,’” he said.

Democrats and other critics of the administration also blame Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler, a former Republican delegate whom Mr. Ehrlich appointed to run the agency in 2003. They accuse Mr. Schisler of being too cozy with the industry he regulates.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, Montgomery County Democrat, has asked for Mr. Schisler’s resignation because of the rate increases.

Mr. Ehrlich dismissed the resignation call as “nothing more than politics,” Miss DeLeaver said.

The candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan — also took aim at Mr. Ehrlich, as well as each other.

Mr. O’Malley says the governor has “failed … to protect Maryland’s hardworking families.” Mr. Duncan faults the governor and the mayor for collecting campaign contributions from power companies.

“Marylanders deserve real solutions, not political posturing by those who are beholden to special interests,” Mr. Duncan said.

Even Maryland Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat who has been an Ehrlich supporter, took a swipe at the governor for his behind-the-scenes approach to resolving the crisis.

“When I get my [electric] bill, I’ll jump up and down that you have secret negotiations,” Mr. Schaefer said.

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