ANNAPOLIS- Facing criticism for a sluggish response to the coming Baltimore Gas and Energy Co. rate increases, Gov Robert L Ehrlich Jr. said Wednesday that the 72 percent rate increase which customers will face in July “will not stand.”
Though he did not offer an alternative plan to deal with the rate increases, Ehrlich promised that a one would be worked out “in the next couple weeks.”
Whatever Ehrlich works out will be competing with more than a dozen bills introduced by legislators of both parties who are scrambling to address public outrage over the coming electricity rate increases.
The governor’s remarks came at a meeting of the state Board of Public Works, in an at times querulous exchange with Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who peppered the governor with questions about what is being done to stem the rate increase.
“Usually I don’t say anything, but today, I’m going to say something,” Schaefer said, pointing to newspaper stories about the rate increase and a meeting the governor held Tuesday with four members of the five-member Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in Maryland.
The average BGE customer’s bill will increase about 72 percent – from around $1,033 to about $1,800 annually- when prices return to market levels on July 1.
Ehrlich explained to Schaefer that the expiration of the rate caps is the intended result of a 1999 deregulation law, but said that the amount of the increase – spurred by factors like rising fuel costs and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico – is too much for consumers to handle.
“Seventy-two percent will not stand,” Ehrlich told Schaefer and the audience.
Kenneth D. Schisler, chairman of the PSC, told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the commission was open to alternative plans to the one proposed last week. The proposed plan would limit initial increases to 21 percent and phase in the full increase over two years. It would also allow BGE to charge customers 5 percent interest on the deferred costs.
“The governor made clear to me that our plan was a step in the right direction, but was inadequate,” he said.
When Schaefer pressed Ehrlich to explain why he had held a “secret” meeting with the four members of the commission whom he appointed, Ehrlich was quick to deny that the meeting was secret. He did say, however, that publicity would have hampered the discussion.
“Things tend to get confused and political when discussions are held in the public light,” Ehrlich said.
Finger-pointing and blame are rampant because of the electricity issue, Ehrlich said, making sure to note that he was in Congress and not a part of the state government when the 1999 deregulation law was passed.
Schaefer wondered aloud who was being included in the process of developing a plan to deal with the rate increases. Ehrlich replied that his staff was working with the commission and legislators to create a compromise agreement.
Usually a reliable ally of the governor, Schaefer at one point in the meeting called Ehrlich “Glendening.Jr.” Schaefer has a celebrated history of bickering and feuding with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening at Board of Public Works meetings. Ehrlich laughed but did not otherwise respond to the remark.
Schaefer spokesman Michael D. Golden later said that Schaefer was simply expressing frustration at the governor’s apparent inaction, and that this was not an indication of a rift between the comptroller and the governor.
“I think it’s just a difference in approach,” he said.
Ehrlich also faced criticism Wednesday from members of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, who said they wanted to know why Ehrlich had excluded the only African-American member of the Public Service Commission, Harold D. Williams, from the Tuesday meeting with other commissioners.
“How can the blacks in the state of Maryland get good representation in the public service commission without having the presence of our representative?” Delegate Rudolph C. Cane, D-Wicomico, the caucus chairman, said at a State House Press conference. Henry P. Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, called the caucus’ accusation “inappropriate and disappointing.”