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Political Animal

Complicated

By Brian Morton | Posted 5/3/2006

Like nearly anyone else with limited faculties, we here at Animal Control are trying to puzzle out the whole new BGE rate deal that Gov. Robert “I’m Really Not Trying to Be Smooth, Please Ignore My Smirk” Ehrlich has modestly dropped in our laps. We’re really trying. But it’s so hard to do when we’re so—what’s the word for it?—stupid.

We get the whole “electricity rates are going to go up” thing. We even comprehend that doom-and-gloom premise that we can’t get cheap power forever, because someone’s got to pay the piper. We just didn’t realize that seven years ago, our lawmakers—on both sides of the aisle—were so gullible that they’d take our money almost a decade down the line and wager it on a shell game.

Now, shell games, those we understand. The operator takes a pea and he sticks it under one of three shells. Simple as dirt. Then he moves those shells around really slowly, so slowly that an idiot like you or me can figure it out. No problem. Then we get to bet on which shell the pea is under. And then it’s not there and we lose our money. Apparently we don’t need to go to a side street in Manhattan or New Orleans to play this game anymore, because we’ve got a high-stakes version right here in Maryland, only it takes more than half a score of years to play. Because we’re stupid.

No, really—we must be stupid, because the head of the Maryland Public Service Commission, Kenneth Schisler, keeps telling us we are. Whenever you ask the man a simple question, he keeps saying, “Well—it’s complicated.” He never answers the question, but he always tells us how hard the answer must be—so hard that it would tax our addled little brains, all working together to fathom an answer.

Take, for example, the question posed by Del. Curtis Anderson (D-Baltimore City) at last week’s not-really-a-hearing on the rate rise. We’d call it a “hearing,” but there really wasn’t any “listening” going on from the PSC end of the room. We’d tell you why, but we can’t—there’s not enough room on this page to do it justice. After all, it’s complicated.

Anderson wanted to know what kind of profit Constellation Energy Group, BGE’s parent company, would make if this deal goes through. Not so hard a question, right? Cui bono? Even lawyers, smart guys that they are with their fancy degrees and sheepskins mounted on the wall, they know to ask where the money goes. But not Schisler, no—not the head of the commission with “public service” right there in the title. Not like it’s his job or anything.

No—Schisler says to Anderson, “It’s a far more complicated answer, and I’m not going to try to answer it now.”

Damn. Now it’s not just us who are stupid, it’s the people we’re electing. Somebody dig up Albert Einstein, because apparently the lawyers, lawmakers, and hoi polloi—us Great Unwashed out here—aren’t capable of understanding a balance sheet.

Let’s go back to that shell game. Part of the game involves a guy sticking a pea under a shell. The part you don’t get is that you aren’t playing against the guy with the fast hands and the pea. You’re playing against him and all his buddies—the guys standing around the table—regular-looking yokels just like you. Some look like they win, and some look like they lose.

The ones who win, they all have an angle. When the guy with the pea is distracted for a second when he’s shoving it all around, the guy who’s winning tells you, “Look, every time he gets confused, the pea ends up on the guy’s left. You watch.”

Sure enough, every time the operator’s nerves get frazzled, the pea is on the left side. Money in the bank. Except when you’re convinced it’s a sure thing, and you lay down your wad—you know, the 600 million smackers or so that you have been saving for the down payment on a college fund or something. And then, the guy lifts the shell, the pea’s not there, someone yells, “Look—the cops!” And you’re left standing there wondering what the hell just happened.

It’s simple. You’re the sucker, and your “pals” were in on the game.

Now insert “Public Service Commission” for “pals,” trade “business-friendly governor” for “operator,” and “deregulation” for “shell game,” and you start getting the idea. So-called “meetings” without the PSC’s Democrat-appointed members? Suspicious e-mails between the PSC chairman and power company lobbyists? $528 million in so-called stranded costs that we paid BGE so Constellation could take over the utility’s power plants? Someone swallowed a lure. And the suckers are the people you elected.

Don’t act surprised at this point—it’s kind of shameful. Besides, they’d have warned you about your first time in the big city, only it’s a little hard to explain. Ask Ken Schisler. He’d tell you it’s complicated.

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