Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007

PSC Chairman Schisler resigns

He leaves Public Service Commission on Friday, ending a tenure marked by wrangling over electric rate hikes

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ANNAPOLIS — Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler resigned Monday, ending a troubled year dominated by questions of electricity rates.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had zeroed in on the commission in many campaign stump speeches, blaming the PSC for failing to look out for the interests of consumers.

Although the PSC dominated what O’Malley said during the campaign, it didn’t get a mention in his Jan. 17 inaugural address. And the first moves of the new governor have not included changes in the five-member commission.

News accounts said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach had been trying to broker a deal between Schisler and the administration. O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said no deal had been struck.

Schisler, whose five-year term was set to expire next year, submitted a one-sentence letter of resignation to O’Malley, saying his departure would be effective Feb. 2. In a written statement , Schisler said: ‘‘During my tenure at the Commission I have endeavored to implement the policies enacted by the General Assembly in a fair, impartial and effective manner. My resignation will facilitate the ability of the Public Service Commission to move forward in the important work it must accomplish. I wish my successors well.”

In his own statement, Abbruzzese said, ‘‘We are thankful that Mr. Schisler stepped aside, allowing the Public Service Commission to move forward. Now, the work of rebuilding Maryland’s regulatory framework begins in earnest. There is no time to waste getting professional regulators back on the job — to protect consumers and restore stability for businesses.”

Schisler’s term came under intense scrutiny beginning in February 2006 when the PSC approved a 72 percent rate hike for Baltimore Gas & Electric customers.

In 1999, the legislature approved an electricity market deregulation plan that capped rates for years. BGE’s caps came off last year, and the ensuing rate hike represented years of rising energy costs.

The rate hike launched the legislature into a tailspin over how to ease the burden on consumers. One measure would have fired the PSC and allowed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to name a new panel, but the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the General Assembly overreached its authority with the bill.

The governor nominates PSC members, who are confirmed by the Senate and serve staggered five-year terms. The term of Harold Williams, who was appointed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), runs out this year. The commission has one vacancy.

Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton said Thursday that he was prepared to submit legislation that would expand the PSC to seven members, diluting Schisler’s power.

Middleton said some lawmakers might want to reregulate the state’s electricity market and the PSC would be tasked with assessing that idea. Right now, the General Assembly has no confidence the PSC could do that evaluation, he said.

‘‘The easiest thing would be if Mr. Schisler would just leave,” Middleton said.