3,000 more families to get help in paying higher bills

MARYLAND - An extra 3,000 families will be able to get help from the state to cope with steeply rising electric rates this summer, Gov. Martin O'Malley said recently as he announced $5 million in additional funding for the Electric Universal Service Program.

O'Malley, who has been under fire from critics for his inability to stop the 50 percent Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. increase that has already gone into effect, said his administration will be pushing legislation and conservation initiatives to prevent repeat of this year's rate shocks. But in the immediate future, he said, the state has a responsibility to provide more aid to those who might have to choose between buying food and turning on the air conditioning this summer.

"There are a lot of Marylanders living on the edge, living on fixed incomes, who may be having trouble keeping cool," O'Malley said during a news conference in the noon sun outside the State House.

"We need them to pick up the phone and ask for assistance. Don't take chances with your health. Call and ask for help." The state reported its first heat-related death of the summer this week, and Health Secretary John M. Colmers, who joined O'Malley, said he is worried that more Marylanders could be at risk because of the high electricity prices.

He said people should take steps such as avoiding strenuous activity during the middle of the day, drinking plenty of water and wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Colmers brought a bottle of water with him to the lectern to illustrate the point, though he was wearing a dark wool suit, as were O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, who was on hand for the announcement, wore off-white clothing.

Dixon said the city, with its large concentration of working-poor families and senior citizens on fixed incomes, is likely to be hit particularly hard by the higher electricity costs. Without the additional funding from the governor, the state's energy assistance programs would have been able to cover fewer people at a time when they are needed the most, she said. "This is going to be a great help," Dixon said. The announcement brings state funding for the program up to $57 million this year. Previously, the state had allocated $36 million from utility taxes and $16 million in general tax money.

Eligibility is limited by income. Those who make up to 175 percent of the poverty level - about $36,000 a year for a family of four - can take advantage of the assistance, O'Malley said. More information is available at 800-332- 6347 or on the state web site, www.gov.state.md.us.

Some lawmakers and consumer advocates want O'Malley to go much further, saying re-regulation of the electric industry is necessary. The governor said that he favors more strict scrutiny of the utilities and possibly finding ways to encourage the construction of new power plants to benefit Maryland consumers.

But undoing Maryland's 1999 decision to deregulate the industry is probably impossible, he said. Doing so would require the state to seize power plants through eminent domain, an idea that O'Malley said would be prohibitively expensive and legally dubious. "We're looking at all the options to create a better future for Maryland consumers," O'Malley said. "It's very difficult to change the past."


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