- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — It’s been a year since a Baltimore power company gave state lawmakers quite a shock: The expiration of price caps meant consumers would be hit with 72 percent rate increases in their summer power bills, just in time for consumers to take out their anger on incumbent politicians in the fall.

This year, lawmakers continue to grapple with the question of whether they erred in deregulating the state’s electric market back in 1999 — when prices were frozen, at the time to prevent huge drops in power prices. Only this year, with election-year politics out of the way, lawmakers don’t appear to be in the same panic to ratchet back the price increases.

“I don’t feel the same level of angst as last year,” said Delegate Derrick Davis, a Prince George’s Democrat who leads a House committee that deals with the utility markets. “The kinds of things that happened last year, I don’t think we’re going to see that.”

Mr. Davis was referring to the hysteria that gripped the legislature last March after the utility-regulating Public Service Commission (PSC) approved a 72 percent rate increase by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. (BGE), which serves more than 1 million people in and around the state’s biggest city.

That rate increase sent simmering political tensions in Annapolis to a full boil. Democrats in the legislature, who had clashed with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for four years and found him too industry-friendly on other topics, laid into Mr. Ehrlich’s PSC.

The price spike owed by Maryland consumers last year spooked politicians. Lawmakers panicked, working until midnight their last working day of last year to try and bring down rates. That attempt failed, and lawmakers returned for a special session in June to address BGE and other power rates. So important was the problem that lawmakers worked until dawn one night to pass a bill easing in increases.

That so-called “stabilization plan” began last summer, with smaller increases to bring electricity rates up to market rates. Today, BGE customers face another possible spike when they are due to return to market rates next January.

But the panic over power rate increases? It’s nowhere to be found in Annapolis.

“It’s a different tone,” said Sen. John Astle, an Anne Arundel Democrat who works on a Senate committee looking at electricity plans. “First of all, there’s not the partisan bashing. We’re not at each other. There’s a more cooperative tone.”

Several electricity-related measures have been proposed this session, including a bill to re-regulate the state’s electricity market, as Virginia did last month. However, lawmakers from both parties say there’s no rush to make a change.

That’s likely because Mr. Ehrlich was defeated for re-election by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat who frequently criticized Mr. Ehrlich’s handling of the power crisis. Mr. O’Malley said Mr. Ehrlich’s PSC members were too cozy with power suppliers.

Lawmakers from both parties say they want to give Mr. O’Malley’s picks time to look at the state’s electricity market.

Sen. E.J. Pipkin, Eastern Shore Republican who last year suggested re-regulation, said he was content to wait for the new PSC to carefully examine the electricity market. Big changes could be made next year, he said.

“You don’t just snap your fingers and re-regulate,” Mr. Pipkin said. He said lawmakers are still interested in the electricity problems, but the sense now in Annapolis is to proceed with caution.

“It’s just a question now of what do we do over the long term,” Mr. Pipkin said.

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