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Volume 14, Issue 11 ~ March 16 - March 22, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

Our Legislators’ 72-Percent Solution

Nothing is so admirable in politics as a short memory.

–John Kenneth Galbraith

Seeing that this week’s message concerns how our politicians have once again hoodwinked us, methinks it’s appropriate to add another thought or two on our so-called public servants and their memories. Consider these:

It is dangerous for a candidate to say things people might remember.

–Sen. Eugene McCarthy.

And …

When a man points a finger at someone else, he should remember that four of his fingers are pointing at himself.

–Louis Nizer

Surely you know by now that Baltimore Gas & Electric Company, the once-independent and benevolent utility now under the umbrella of hungry Constellation Energy Group, has announced a rate increase averaging 72 percent, beginning in July.

Wife Lois and I got our notice over the weekend via snail mail; needless to say we weren’t pleased to find that in our yearly average monthly payment plan our dues to turn on the lights will skyrocket from the $109 to $161. Fifty-two more bucks a month isn’t chicken feed.

It’s not that we can’t afford it. Maybe we’ll skip an evening out with granddaughter Grumpy a couple times a month if for no other reason than to let her know at the tender age of four how utilities under deregulation can upset the apple cart. Who knows, she might decide on a career in some Public Service Commission somewhere to help out the little guys and gals.

But the little guys and gals are going to take it on the chin when BG&E implements its hike. To put it bluntly, 72 percent is a hell of a shock for families living from hand to mouth, and this is no one-time assessment. It could mean more than giving up a few nights out; maybe giving up eating at home for more than a few nights a month.

Summer is hot; air conditioners gobble up juice, making the round disk on the electric meter spin like the wheels of Jimmy Johnson’s NASCAR racecar. Month after month thereafter when the bill arrives from BG&E, there’ll be a seething fiscal reminder of how our politicians let us down big time six years ago.

Think of those who heat their houses in winter with electricity, encouraged to do so by the utility in the past. There will be a lot of bundling up next winter to keep warm, and plumbers will get richer repairing frozen pipes. Don’t ask who’s gonna pay for the doctor and pharmacy bills for those whose health takes a hit due to living in an igloo.

The Trouble with Deregulation

In 1999, our legislators, their campaign coffers embellished via contributions from lobbyists, decided deregulation of our energy industry was the way to go. After all, it would only cost the average consumer $743 per annum.

They might plead they had no idea of the consequences, but it doesn’t take a wizard to understand the potential consequences of deregulation. If they needed a reminder, they could have looked at the breakup of Ma Ball or the airlines. Now we can add BG&E to the list.

Deregulation — what they call free-market competition for energy — turned out to be akin to a whale oil lamp as compared with a 100-watt bulb. The lower prices promised by competition in electric bills made a U-turn.

Many Fingers Pointing

Now the you-know-what has hit the fan. In Annapolis and elsewhere, everybody is pointing fingers. One needs a score sheet to track who’s blaming whom and why. Just about everyone in that batch of scoundrels needs only a mirror. And a memory, which they fervently hope their constituents don’t have.

Fingers are already pointed at Gov. Bob Ehrlich, who canned many in the Public Service Commission and replaced some of them with appointees with backgrounds in the utility field, which methinks wasn’t too wise.

On the other hand, commissioners who were around in ’99 probably deserved ouster. Where were they when the bought legislature and governor were deliberating deregulation? Surely they must have had an inkling that their hair-brained scheme could bomb. The energy market was and remains too volatile for gambling — unless one is gambling with other people’s money. In their game of poker with our money, our legislators had a pair of deuces in their hand while the utility had a royal flush.

Our legislators — and their leader at the time, former Gov. Parris Glendening — might consider upgrading their home-security systems, for an irate citizenry could take a view of not just throwing them out of office (which would be too late for Glendening who has moved on to new fields), but to literally throw them out into the cold. Let ’em share in all the misery.

Back in the summer of 1972, Tropical Storm Agnes, made the Bay as thick as molasses. Since then to this very day, whenever something goes wrong in the Chesapeake Bay, there have been more than a few who somehow find a way to blame it on Aggie.

Move over Aggie, now we have another symbolic scapegoat: Katrina.

Yes, Katrina the hurricane that wiped out New Orleans and other lowlands of the southeastern United States. When things get edgy in all the finger pointing, BG&E and all the pols take a brief time out from blaming each other to point their fingers at the big storm of the century. But as Louis Nizer so wisely said, When you point a finger elsewhere, four are pointing back at you.

That’s probably a reasonable proportion; Katrina gets one-fifth of the blame for the mess we’re in; the utility and the politicians get four-fifths.

The worst of it all, and with the General Assembly in session, is that all the politicians are so busy blaming each other and Katrina that no one seems to have the time to come up with some plan to ease the shock. Maybe if they skipped a few happy hours and dinners hosted by lobbyists, they could tackle this gouging of our wallets.

How I’ll Point My Finger

I’d sure like to have a roll call reading of how our legislators voted when de-reg passed both Houses in Annapolis. I’d point my finger next election time not at them but at the names of their opponents when I’m in the voting booth. Kick the scoundrels out. Enough said

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