- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers yesterday applauded a judge’s decision to review a pending 72 percent increase in their electric bills, but state regulators warned that it might worsen energy woes.

“It’s good that they are trying to stop it in court,” said Todd Hardeman, 36, an office manager in Baltimore. “A 72 percent increase is crazy.”

But Christine Nizer, spokeswoman for the utility-regulating Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), said that if the court challenge by Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley succeeds, it could speed up the rate increase.

“The commission put a stabilization plan in place out of concern for customers,” she said. “Baltimore City’s action in circuit court, if vindicated, simply takes away a chance for consumers to gradually transition to those higher rates.”

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Albert J. Matricciani ruled late yesterday in favor of the mayor’s request to review BGE’s plan to phase in electricity rates to market levels. The judge also granted the mayor’s request to prevent BGE from advertising the plan.

A hearing has been scheduled for May 30.

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

It still is not clear whether the court can reverse the rate increase, which the PSC says was set in accordance with Maryland’s 1999 utility deregulation laws.

Overturning the rate-stabilization plan could force BGE to revert to an earlier phase-in schedule that is slightly less beneficial for consumers, or to impose the full 72 percent rate increase July 1.

The phase-in plan 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.

Meanwhile, the Open Meetings Law Compliance Board ruled that a closed meeting in March between PSC members and the governor’s staff should have been held in public.

Because the compliance board is advisory, the commissioners face no sanction.

The closed meeting, held as the administration scrambled to address the looming energy rate increases, was challenged by members of the press and by state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, Baltimore Democrat.

The PSC’s lone Democratic member was not at the meeting.

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

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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