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Lawmakers consider bills on electric rates, sex predators

June 15, 2006|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS

Maryland lawmakers worked late into the night Wednesday as they attempted to hammer out bills to shield customers of Baltimore Gas and Electric from a 72 percent rate hike when its rate caps expire July 1, and to tighten monitoring of convicted sexual predators.

The Senate and House convened in a special session of the General Assembly at 10 a.m. By 8:30 p.m., the Senate had approved a bill to restructure the electric industry and stabilize rates, but had not considered a sexual predator bill.

The House Judiciary Committee conducted hearings Wednesday afternoon on four sexual predator bills, but concluded the hearing without deciding which bill to move forward.

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The full House was preparing to reconvene after 9 p.m., but legislators were predicting the debates could last well into the night.

While the immediate impact of the electric restructuring will affect BGE customers, it also has some applications for Allegheny Energy, the electric supplier for most Washington County residents.

An Allegheny official said the bill, as approved by the Senate, would give the energy company more options for acquiring the electric power it supplies to its customers and will allow Allegheny to work out a "rate mitigation plan" with the consent of a reconstituted Public Service Commission before its own rate caps expire on Dec. 31, 2008.

Under the legislation, Allegheny could enter into bilateral contracts with other suppliers, purchase energy at auction or bid out its energy load incrementally.

The General Assembly voted in 1999 to deregulate electric utilities, believing the move would encourage competition and ultimately result in lower rates for customers. But that competition didn't materialize and the cost of supplying energy soared. When BGE went to the auction market in March, the prices were so high the company projected a 72 percent rate hike for its customers when the caps, which reflected 1993 prices, go off and the company attempts to pass on real market rates.

The legislation the Senate approved would hold the rates at 15 percent.

What Allegheny will eventually charge is unknown and will depend on market rates in 2008.

"From the company's standpoint, we certainly understand the need to ease our customers to market rate," said Jay Mason, director of state government affairs for Allegheny.

By 9:30 p.m., the House Judiciary Committee had decided to push the sexual predator bill offered by Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Ehrlich had offered the bill passed by the House during the regular session. It died in the final hours of the regular session because of a Senate fight over mandatory minimum sentences.

Attorney General Joseph Curran pleaded with House Judiciary Committee members to at least approve a bill that would improve monitoring of convicted sexual predators after they are released from prison and improve notification to communities where they reside.

"You all agree on two things," he said. "Go with it!"

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said the bill does include mandatory sentences of 25 years for first-degree sexual offenses and five-year minimums for second-degree offenses.

"It's a big step forward," he said.

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