Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Corporations and utility companies have wielded a massive amount of power over Maryland public policy for decades. Back in 1999, the Maryland General Assembly voted to deregulate the state’s energy industry to end the monopoly of Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. under the assumption that allowing more firms to compete in the market would lead to lower prices. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t.)
Now, a group called the Maryland Public Service Commission oversees and reviews the “bid solicitation process” by which consumers purchase utility services. However, rather than hold utility companies accountable to its standards, the commission has allowed them to act with impunity — and it intends to continue to do so in the future.
The commission has a set of 142 requirements that utility companies undergoing mergers must meet, including one-time $50-$100 credits on all customers’ accounts and charitable donations averaging $7 million for ten years. But according to an audit of the commission’s operations, the oversight agency has failed to actually oversee the actions of corporations in the industry of their purview. The Maryland General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Audits found that from February 2016 to March 2020, the commission “did not have an adequate process to ensure that utility companies complied with all conditions set forth in the merger orders.”
In response to the audit, the commission outright refused to “monitor compliance with the terms and conditions of its merger agreement,” despite the fact that, “at present there is no other entity or individual in a position to perform this critical task.” In other words, the commission decided to publicly shirk its own rules and take the side of big business rather than consumers.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that four out of five of the commission’s members have previously worked on behalf of the corporate world and the energy industry. PSC Chairman Jason M. Stanek previously worked as a lawyer for the National Fuel Gas Company and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Commissioner Odogwu Obi Linton focused on the “deregulation of the electric industry” while working for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Commissioner Mindy L. Herman held positions with both Pepco and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. Commissioner Michael T. Richard worked for the Nuclear Energy Institute in addition to the Westinghouse Electric Company. While it would be a stretch to say that the commission’s decision to ignore the audit’s recommendations came as a direct result of the members’ earlier corporate experiences, it is an awfully big coincidence.
The case of the Maryland Public Service Commission is just one of many examples of the deep ties between corporations and the political world. Corporations donate an exorbitant amount of money to politicians every year. To curry favor with the business lobby (and ideally, attract some of their cash), politicians often appoint leaders in the business world to political posts. (See: Rex Tillerson, Steve Mnuchin and countless others.) Corporate political appointees are welcomed, of course, by the wealthy few that benefit from their preferred policies — the rest of us are typically left unsatisfied.
To combat the corrupting influence of corporations within the Public Service Commission, the Maryland state legislature should pass a bill to bar former employees of utility companies from serving on the commission. Commissioners without ties to the energy lobby would hopefully be more inclined to advocate on behalf of the average Marylander, rather than the interests of capital.
Additionally, the General Assembly should amend the Public Utilities Article of the Maryland Code to require the commission to enforce its own rules and orders. As it currently stands, the article “vests the Commission with broad discretion regarding how to enforce its orders, rather than mandating a particular protocol.” By providing the commission such a substantial amount of leeway, the code allows for it to act in virtually any manner it chooses — which is just one manifestation of the damaging legacy of deregulation in the state of Maryland.
If the Public Service Commission is allowed to continue operating as is, utility companies will likely become emboldened to neglect their customers further. Now that the commission has implicitly stated it won’t punish companies for violating its rules, why wouldn’t they?
Josh Binderman is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.