- The Washington Times - Friday, March 31, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — State lawmakers yesterday moved closer to a showdown with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. on electricity rates when they gave final approval to several power-related bills he opposes.

Legislators forwarded to Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, bills that would revamp the utility-regulating Public Service Commission and force Constellation Energy Group, the parent company of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. (BGE), to pay the state $528 million before merging with a Florida utility.

The bills are a reaction to public alarm over electricity rates, which could rise sharply across much of Maryland this year as rate caps expire.

Earlier, the Democratic-controlled legislature sent Mr. Ehrlich a bill that would give lawmakers veto power over the merger of Constellation and Florida-based Florida Power & Light.

Democratic lawmakers wanted to have the measures to Mr. Ehrlich by yesterday so they will have time to override any vetoes before they adjourn April 10.

Mr. Ehrlich has said he opposes the bills, favoring negotiations with energy suppliers to soften rate increases.

Passage of the bills came despite Republican warnings that meddling with the Constellation merger could hurt the state’s energy market in the long run.

Democrats countered that the bills are an attempt to force the power companies to ease rate increases.

“This bill is about getting rate relief to the residential rate-payer,” said Delegate Brian K. McHale, Baltimore Democrat, talking about the bill requiring Constellation to give the state $528 million before rate caps can expire.

Some Republican lawmakers warned of power companies going out of business or possible power shortages if the merger is derailed.

“I don’t want to be like the caveman who’s heating himself by burning logs,” said Delegate Warren E. Miller, Howard County Republican, warning of dire consequences if the legislature interferes with the power market.

Mr. Ehrlich, who negotiated with Constellation and top lawmakers all week, has not said he will veto the bills.

But he told reporters Thursday they were counterproductive in negotiations to lower rates, and the threat of veto was the reason Democrats wanted to send the bills his way yesterday.

Constellation also has opposed bills that threaten its merger. A spokesman for the company, Rob Gould, said yesterday that a legislative proposal for the supplier to give $750 million for rate relief was “outrageous” but that talks would continue.

On another electricity-related matter, the House gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would require pollution cleanups at some coal-fired power plants.

Included in that measure is a call for Maryland to join a multistate pact to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The pollution bill is not directly related to the Constellation merger or power rates, but because power companies warned the requirements could drive up costs, the matter was part of a contentious stew of electricity bills this session.

Supporters conceded that the cleanups could be expensive, but they noted that Maryland can withdraw from the multistate treaty if it becomes so pricey that electricity supply is threatened.

The electricity debates have proved among the testiest of the legislative term. House members haggled over the bills for hours yesterday, at times arguing loudly and questioning each other’s motives.

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