- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

Maryland Republicans think voter frustration with rising energy prices — including a 72 percent increase in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. rates — will help erode the large Democratic majority in the General Assembly come November.

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said voters, especially those among BGE’s 1.1 million customers, are turned off by the Democrats passing laws to strip powers from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, while failing to come up with a plan to lower electricity prices.

“The Democratic majority’s failure to help the ratepayers will hurt them,” she said. “They will answer to their constituents.”

After the General Assembly adjourned last month, the governor brokered a deal with BGE for an 18-month phase-in period to reach market-level prices, beginning with a 19 percent increase July 1.

The plan was approved Friday by the utility-regulating Public Service Commission.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, Frederick County Republican, said Democrats will suffer on Election Day not only for failing to pass a rate-reduction plan, but also for passing the 1999 utility deregulation laws that contributed to the current electricity crisis.

“If you follow the logic that [energy prices] should have an impact on the election, then it should help the Republicans,” he said. “I think it is going to be pretty significant.”

The rate increases resulted, in part, from the 1999 laws approved by the legislature under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, that capped electricity rates below market levels for six years.

Worldwide demand for energy and Hurricane Katrina’s disruption of supplies have also contributed to higher electricity costs at the same time that BGE’s rate caps are expiring.

At a public hearing on the plan last week, residents voiced bitter dissatisfaction with explanations for the rising electricity rates as well as the governor’s plan to gradually ease into the higher prices.

Republican officials say Democratic incumbents in poor city districts and in blue-collar suburban districts have been rendered the most vulnerable by the crisis.

Those Democrats include Delegates Joseph J. Minnick, Eric M. Bromwell and Steven J. DeBoy Sr., all of Baltimore County, and Delegate Salima Siler Marriott and Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, both of Baltimore.

None of the lawmakers returned calls seeking comment.

But Maryland Democratic Party spokesman David R. Paulson said voter ire will be aimed at Mr. Ehrlich for presiding over the rate increase.

“This is a Bob Ehrlich rate hike,” he said. “As far as any [Election Day] effects, the Republicans will feel those effects as they trickle down from Bob Ehrlich and [U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele], not something that happened in the last decade.”

However, a poll last month by nonpartisan Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showed that 67 percent of Marylanders agreed that the Democrat-controlled General Assembly is responsible for rising utility rates.

If voters still feel that way in November, it could boost Maryland Republican Party Chairman John M. Kane’s plan to pick up seven seats in the state Senate and 14 seats in the House of Delegates — gains that would drastically alter the balance of power in the legislature, where the majority has enjoyed a greater than 2-to-1 advantage for a generation.

Not all Republican leaders think electricity prices will figure prominently in the elections, which are more than six months off.

“People will come to grips with the fact that energy rates have gone up and the governor has done all he could to cushion the increase. I don’t think it is going to have that much effect,” said Senate Minority Whip Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican.

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