ANNAPOLIS – Action by the General Assembly to address consumer outrage over a projected 72 percent increase in electricity bills is gaining momentum, with the Senate’s top Democrat vowing Thursday to deal with the problem even if it takes a special legislative session.
“We have four weeks to solve the problem,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D – Calvert, said in an interview. “If we don’t, the Speaker [of the House] or I may need to call us back into session – if the governor doesn’t – to deal with it.”
Miller said some relief would have to be provided, even if it requires the General Assembly’s “torpedoeing” of the proposed merger between Constellation Energy Group Inc., the parent company of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and Florida’s FPL Group Inc.
On Wednesday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, who has been criticized by Democrats for what they believe has been his sluggish response to the issue, said that the rate increase “will not stand.” He predicted something would be worked out within the next two or three weeks.
Constellation Energy spokesman Robert L. Gould said the rate increase is the result of higher worldwide energy costs and legislation to slow or stop the increase would be unfair and ultimately hurt BGE customers.
“Anything that penalizes BGE for a global problem out of its control is inequitable,” Gould said.
Lawmakers have been scrambling to address consumer pains over the coming rate hikes with more than a dozen bills, including a measure to hold up the merger.
The latest and most extreme of these bills would effectively reregulate the deregulated public utility industry.
The bill was introduced by Del. Herbert H. McMillan, R – Anne Arundel, Thursday, after the House’s deadline for bill introduction.
While the House voted overwhelmingly to allow the bill’s late introduction, even its sponsor said it will be “very difficult” to pass a reregulation bill in the General Assembly.
“If they vote to reregulate these monopolies, a lot of these people . . . are going to be admitting they made a mistake,” McMillan said.
Still, the self-described “free enterprise, fiscally conservative Republican” said reregulation would be appropriate for Constellation Energy, which he calls a “practical monopoly, if not a monopoly in fact.”
Gould, the Constellation spokesman, said that the company has not profited from providing electricity since the start of deregulation six years ago, when rates were capped at 1993 levels.
He noted that in this time, the company made over $1 billion in improvements to its electric plans.
“BGE customers have had a very favorable economic situation for the last 13 years,” Gould said.
Nevertheless, leading lawmakers in both the House and Senate agree the General Assembly will have to pass some legislation to lessen the effects of the rate hikes or face retribution from the voters.
“There is a real desire to do something this year – before the election obviously – especially [for legislators] from the Baltimore area,” said House Majority Leader Kumar P. Barve, D – Montgomery.
This sentiment was echoed by the Senate Minority Whip, Andrew P. Harris, R – Baltimore County, who said responsibility to ease consumer pain from the rate hikes has fallen on the General Assembly – not the Governor.
“We caused the problem through legislation. We have to fix the problem through legislation,” Harris said.
Sen. Leo E. Green, D – Prince George’s, who is sponsoring a reregulation bill in the Senate, provided what may have been the most concise explanation of the General Assembly’s need to act on the issue. “If we don’t move we’re going to be removed,” Green said.