By Nicholas Sohr and Matt D. Wilson
ANNAPOLIS – In a move Republicans called a “hoggish power grab,” the Maryland Senate passed a measure Wednesday intended to oust the sitting members of the state Public Service Commission and replace most of them with legislative appointees.
The bill would remove all five members of the state’s utility regulating body and create a new five-member PSC. The Senate President and the Speaker of the House – now both Democrats – would each appoint two members, and the governor, a Republican, would appoint one. Currently, the governor holds all five commissioner appointments.
Aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich indicated that he will likely veto the bill if it is passed by the House of Delegates, where it faces an uncertain future.
The PSC has come under fire recently from lawmakers who say it favors the interests of utility companies over consumers as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.’s 1.1 million electric customers brace for an average 72 percent rate increase.
“There is a public perception of a warm, cozy relationship between the Public Service Commission and the BGE employees,” said Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, who chairs the committee sifting through legislative responses to the rate increase.
“My gut feeling is that if you took a vote on how people feel about the PSC, we’d get a failing grade,” he said.
Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Eastern Shore, said that the bill will not help BGE customers deal with oncoming rate increases, but is instead a politically motivated attack against Ehrlich and PSC Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler.
“It’s not going to lower rates one penny,” Stoltzfus said. “It’s mean spirited. It’s hoggish. It’s a hoggish power-grab.”
Only one Republican, Sen. E. J. Pipkin of the Eastern Shore, sided with the fully united Democrats in the 34-13 vote in favor of an April 9 ouster.
“It’s a matter of the policy of the current PSC,” said Pipkin, who believes deregulation has not worked well in his district. “Things just aren’t working out for the consumers.”
The bill now moves on to the House of Delegates where it will face competition from other solutions being offered to the rate increase, most notably, legislation that would give the General Assembly the power to block the merger between BGE’s parent company, Constellation Energy, and Florida’s FPL Group.
“I have no confidence in the PSC,” said House speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel. But, he said, the House’s move to gain veto power over the merger would be more effective than removing all the commission’s members.
The bills must be on the governor’s desk by Friday if the General Assembly wants to avoid being thwarted by a veto from the governor. If a bill passed on or before Friday is vetoed, the Assembly will still have time to override that veto before the end of the session April 10.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland, who has been strongly supporting the PSC bill, promised that the Legislature will meet that Friday deadline.
Ehrlich tacitly voiced his disapproval of both the Senate and House measures at a news conference on the State House steps, saying that the PSC, “or what’s left of them once Mike Miller’s done with them,” can make their own decisions regarding the rate increase and the merger.
“Do you need a legislative fix necessarily? No. Is that the direction that this General Assembly is headed? Yes,” he said.
Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said “it’s a strong possibility” that the governor will veto the bill to restructure the PSC, calling it a largely “punitive bill” against a commission that was not even in place when deregulation was passed in 1999.
“It’s political,” she said. “Basically, that’s it. It’s political.” The effort to block Constellation’s merger with FPL was put on a fast-track in a unanimous vote by the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday afternoon and could come to a final vote as early as Thursday.