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High Noon at the State House

In a crowded hearing room yesterday, with dozens signed up to testify, Senate Finance Chairman Thomas M. Middleton set aside a block of time early on for someone from the governor's office to weigh in on the bill to provide some relief on electricity rates.

But when that moment arrived, and Middleton asked if someone from Gov. Bob Ehrlich's administration would "please come forward and identify yourself," there was an awkward silence.

"Not seeing anyone," Middleton said curtly, "we'll move on."

Ehrlich's decision not to send anyone to testify on the proposal that comes up for a vote today seemed to encapsulate the governor's political strategy with respect to the special session -- to hold back and see what the legislature produces.

"They own this," Ehrlich said in an interview. "This is their package. They are going to have to defend this to the people."

The governor can afford to stand back, said his chief of staff, Chip DiPaula Jr., because he has already helped broker the compromise plan that died in the waning hours of the regular session, and then offered a proposal of his own.

But his restraint now may prove risky, lawmakers in both parties said, because it's not clear there's any scenario that would enable both the governor and the legislature to emerge from the special session declaring victory.

"It's like two gunfighters stepping into a dusty street," said Del. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore). "One of them wins. One of them loses."

And while Republican lawmakers have tradtionally kept in lock step with Ehrlich, the electricity issue has presented itself as one where many of them want to bring home news of a rate relief plan, whether or not it had the governor's backing.

"The legislators have met the people and realized they've got pitchforks and the torches are lit," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough (R-Baltimore).

Where Ehrlich maintains an advantage, said Anderson, is in his ability to "push his spin" on the evening news.

That ability was on full display in the governor's mansion yesterday. Surrounded by baskets of pink petunias on the back patio, Ehrlich met with a succession of television and radio reporters -- nearly a dozen in all -- to say that the latest rate relief package is "just terrible policy."

The deal being struck by the legislature is "much worse by any measure" than the earlier proposals, he said, because it requires all customers to defer payments and does not hinge on concessions from Constellation's planned merger with a Florida power company.

But Democrats said they believe Ehrlich's absence from yesterday's hearing sent a contrary message.

"It's clear he's left it to the General Assembly to solve this problem," Duncan said. "I see that as further proof of his inability to get things done -- and his inability to lead."

Matt Mosk

By Phyllis Jordan  |  June 14, 2006; 6:44 AM ET
 
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