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


Let’s Avoid Sticker Shock in Utility Bills

Meet at the Public Utility Commission, and you’ll see part of the reason that Marylanders could be walloped by electricity rate hikes of 72 percent this summer.

One member, Harold Williams, is from BGE and another, Alan Freifeld, is a telephone industry lawyer. Two members, chairman Kenneth Schisler and Chuck Boutin, were plucked from the General Assembly by business-friendly Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Then there’s Karen Smith, who was a top adviser to Ehrlich.

Find a sympathetic ear in this crew, and we’ll mail you an energy-saving light bulb.

And don’t even think about relying on the commission’s staff for relief. (Their predecessors were escorted out of the building by armed guards and had their photos plastered in the lobby to prevent them from returning.)

It was the new staff that recommended that consumers deferring the higher payments pay 12.5 percent interest rather than the five percent accepted by the commission. Maybe the staff should be working at credit card companies.

But don’t forget that it was the Democratic-run General Assembly that in 1999 passed the deregulation bill that’s setting the stage for our predicament.

They were not alone in trumpeting the benefits. Advocacy groups spoke of the end of monopoly and the advent of competition. We were told that soon we would be able to choose if we wanted our electricity to come from solar or wind or Cousin Bob’s Cut-Rate Power Mart.

Too bad the competition never materialized and the costs of fuel, especially natural gas, have spiked through the roof. Adding insult to injury, the rate caps set by the deregulation plan are due to come off this summer, when many of us will be running our air conditioners non-stop.

In the coming weeks we’ll be hearing from the industry about how lucky we’ve been to have our utility bills “subsidized” by those caps. We’ll be hearing how it would be unfair for Maryland regulators to be “confiscatory” with utility profits.

In this political year, we’ll hear Democrats talk about Ehrlich’s “lapdog” utility commissioners and Republicans blame Democrats for their cloudy crystal ball.

But what we’d like most of all to hear are details of a plan to get us out of this mess.

The General Assembly has known all along that the price caps would come off this summer. They’ve wasted far too much time on slots and similar foolishness instead of planning to avert this crisis.

Meanwhile, the governor has seemed too interested in running the commission as a political arm and in fashioning a plan that satisfied BGE and its parent company, Constellation Energy.

In case you missed it, Constellation made $623 million in profits last year, a healthy 15 percent better than in 2004. The company is also in the process of selling itself to a Florida energy conglomerate, a deal that would, by the way, diminish Marylander’s control over BGE’s environmental practices.

Ehrlich and the General Assembly have bargaining chips to ease the pain in homes and small businesses this summer.

They’d better use them.

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