- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

BALTIMORE — A circuit court judge is expected to rule as early as today on Mayor Martin O’Malley’s lawsuit that seeks to block a 72 percent increase in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. energy rates and stop the company from advertising its plan to phase in the higher prices.

After two hours of arguments before the bench yesterday — which included accusations of BGE corporate greed and political grandstanding by Mr. O’Malley — Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Albert J. Matricciani Jr. said that the case was “a bit tricky.”

Mr. O’Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, wants the judge to not only nullify the phase-in plan approved last month by the utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC), but to also force the commission to reconsider the entire rate increase, due to take effect July 1.

“There is still time to do something meaningful if the commission is directed to do that,” Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler told the court. “The problem is July 1 is a real date — a real deadline when real things will happen to real people.” Lawyers for BGE and the PSC argued that the rates were set in accordance with state law and the deadline to appeal the increase had passed.

Mr. Tyler told the court that the PSC was too closely aligned with the power industry and that the commission should be ordered to review BGE’s profit margin and the planned $11 billion merger of Constellation Energy Group — BGE’s parent company — with Florida utility FPL Group.

He said the city challenged the proposition that higher rates were unavoidable and “people should just eat the 72 percent increase.”

“The city is not interested in a rate-mitigation plan,” PSC lawyer Susan Miller told the court. “They are interested in attacking the 72 percent increase.”

She said that even if the court proceeds with a review of the rate-mitigation plan, the company should be allowed to inform consumers about the plan.

The phase-in plan being assailed in court yesterday also has been the target of Democratic critics since Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election, brokered the deal with BGE after the Democrat-controlled General Assembly adjourned without an energy plan.

The spike in electricity rates is the result, in part, of the state’s 1999 utility deregulation laws passed under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, that capped BGE rates below market-level prices for six years.

Outside the courthouse yesterday, Delegate Curt Anderson said he was continuing to collect signatures on a petition that would force Mr. Ehrlich to call a special session of the legislature to address the electricity crisis.

A petition signed by a majority of members of both chambers — 25 in the Senate and 71 in the House — would compel the governor to convene a special session. A special session has never been forced by petition in Maryland history.

Political observers say Mr. Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, can’t succeed in the effort since he lacks support of the Democratic leadership, most notably Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. of Prince George’s County.

However, Mr. Anderson said he was undeterred and has secured the support of 15 senators and 60 House members — eight more delegates than he had last week. He had predicted the petition would be complete by this week.

In court, Judge Matricciani expressed skepticism that the court had jurisdiction to revisit the rate increase which was approved by the commission in March and may be no longer subject to appeal. He said that if he rules in the city’s favor, an earlier phase-in plan that is slightly less beneficial for consumers would automatically take effect in July.

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