- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

Maryland’s highest court yesterday overturned an attempt by the Democrat-controlled legislature to take over the utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC), ruling it an unconstitutional power grab.

In a 6-1 decision, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the General Assembly’s attempt to fire the PSC commissioners and reappoint its own panel was “an unconstitutional usurpation by the legislature of an executive power.”

“I applaud today’s decision by the Maryland Court of Appeals to protect the separation of powers in state government,” said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election.

“The court’s decision demonstrates that the General Assembly’s rush to deflect blame for their 1999 deregulation law was irresponsible and an overreach of the Maryland Constitution,” said Mr. Ehrlich, who appointed four of the PSC’s five commissioners.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George’s County Democrat who was instrumental in passing the PSC measure, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.

“The members of the Public Service Commission are pleased to have this matter resolved and to continue with their important work,” said Andrew Radding, an attorney for PSC Chairman Kenneth Schisler and other commissioners who challenged the law.

Mr. Radding said the commissioners “have never stopped protecting the interests of the citizens of Maryland.”

The high court’s ruling adds to list of setbacks suffered by General Assembly this election year:

• Last month, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge overturned the General Assembly’s early voting law, noting that the state constitution allows only one day of voting. The legislature overrode Mr. Ehrlich’s veto to enact the law.

• In July, a federal judge overturned a law that would have forced Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend at least 8 percent of payroll costs on employee health care benefits. The judge ruled that the legislation violated a federal statute that sets minimum standards for pensions and health care plans.

• Also in July, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded to near-junk status the credit rating for Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), Potomac Electric Power and Delmarva Power because of the legislature’s attempt to control energy rates and replace the PSC.

In yesterday’s 86-page opinion, the high court wrote that it has “the duty to protect all of the branches of government from granting power to, or seizing power from, each other.”

The General Assembly fired the PSC commissioners during a special session in June. Earlier, BGE, which serves about 1.1 million customers, had announced that its electricity rates were set to increase by 72 percent, prompted by the expiration of a 1999 deregulation law.

Democratic lawmakers, led by Mr. Miller, blamed the PSC for not scrutinizing BGE closely enough.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, said the PSC was “a lapdog for special interests” and has based much of his campaign on casting Mr. Ehrlich as a crony who is friends with energy executives and the enemy of the working class.”

The utilities’ rising rates resulted in part from the Democrat-controlled legislature’s 1999 deregulation of the electricity industry, which capped rates at below-market levels for six years as energy prices increased worldwide. Mr. Miller also led that effort.

Democrats yesterday continued to blame rising energy costs on the PSC.

“Bob Ehrlich and Ken Schisler may have won their case, but Maryland families, taxpayers and consumers lost,” Mr. O’Malley said. “If I’m elected, I will fire Bob Ehrlich’s so-called ‘business-oriented’ Public Service Commission and replace them with independent and competent members who will protect the public.”

State Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman said: “The only way to fire this special-interest PSC appointed by Bob Ehrlich is to fire Bob Ehrlich.”

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