ANNAPOLIS – With the collapse Monday night of the Maryland General Assembly’s last-minute efforts to alleviate the coming Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. rate hike, negotiators will now face the task of finding another way to keep customers from swallowing an average 72 percent rate increase this summer.
“We’re in a whole new world,” said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich at a Tuesday press conference at the State House. “We’re not just dealing now with the Maryland General Assembly, we’re dealing with Wall Street.”
The governor said the dynamics of further negotiations with BGE would be very different since the leverage the threat of Assembly action had put on the utility is gone. He said that the state’s utility regulator, the Public Service Commission, still has some leverage, though, in that it must approve the planned merger between BGE’s parent company, Constellation Energy, and Florida’s FPL Group.
Ehrlich said that he is reviewing “legislative and non-legislative” options to deal with the increase. Among the options he discussed are calling legislators back into a special session, or asking the PSC, to develop a new plan to phase in increases.
Legislators and BGE officials have said litigation might also be an option, and Constellation spokesman Robert L. Gould told the Associated Press that the utility would begin implementing a PSC proposal that would defer costs over two years in the event that there is no other legislative action.
“The bottom line here, it’s not going to be 72 percent,” Ehrlich said. His goal, he said, is a solution that “puts the ratepayers first and does not put BGE in bankruptcy.”
Monday’s proposed plan fell apart when the Maryland Senate – after giving a hastily crafted rate bill preliminary approval – opted not to speed the bill through to a final vote in the 90-day session’s frantic final moments.
The deal would have phased in an average 72 percent rate increase over 18 months. Rates would have increased by 15 percent on July 1 and then by another 29 percent on June 1, 2007, finally reaching unrestricted market levels on January 1, 2008.
Constellation would have also returned $600 million to customers over 10 years if the merger went through by December 31.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Southern Maryland, criticized the governor for not giving legislators enough time to debate the proposed plan and for putting “all his eggs in one basket” instead of giving the Assembly more options.
“I think the governor’s learned another lesson,” he said. “We’ll be back dealing with it again. We need more time.”
Miller said that three bills intended to put pressure on BGE – one to replace members the PSC, a second to force Constellation to return $528 million in stranded costs and a third to block the merger – all of which the governor vetoed, should have been left on the table.
Miller missed several Monday afternoon meetings that Ehrlich held with House Speaker Michael E. Busch and BGE representatives. Ehrlich said in the late afternoon that he and Busch had come to an agreement about most of the major issues, but that Miller had been “the hurdle.”
A major sticking point for legislators was the fate of the current PSC, most of whose members were appointed by Ehrlich. Several senators insisted that what they characterized as a consumer-friendly PSC would provide more relief than the deal BGE and the governor had offered.
“All I know is the plan that was put on the table was inadequate,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Eastern Shore. “We can still get relief from the PSC.”
Busch, who waited for the compromise bill to reach the House of Delegates before ending the session a few minutes after midnight, lamented its failure after the session’s end.
“I just don’t know how anybody could vote against this, particularly in the BGE ratepayer area,” he said. “Even if you have a special session, what’s the plan?”
Earlier in the night, Busch asked in a prayer to start a round of House proceedings that “come July, the lights are still on in Maryland.”
Senate minority leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R-Lower Shore, said Tuesday morning that the failure to come to an agreement has put BGE at risk.
“We’ve jerked them around big time,” he said. “It was a disaster for the company…and for the ratepayers of Maryland.”
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, who shepherded the bill through the Senate Finance Committee only minutes before it came to the Senate floor, said that, despite the bill’s failure, he believes a resolution will be reached. “I’m very optimistic that we will have a special session,” he said.