A House committee voted today to recommend to the Maryland General Assembly that it override a 1976 gubernatorial veto of a bill that would have prohibited the telephone company from charging its customers for directory assistance calls.
The recommendation, which must be adopted by the full General Assembly before the bill becomes law, resurrects one of last year's most heavily lobbied and intensely debated issues.
The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. proposed again this year, that calls to directory assistance operators be charged, a plan praised as proconsumer and denounced as outrageous during the committee debate today.
John K. Keane Jr., a state lawyer who, as the "people's counsel" normally opposes rate increases by uttilities, said the proposal to charge for all but three calls a month to 411 "has a great deal of merit" because it places the cost of the service on those who use it most often. But Del. Raymond A. Dypski (D-Baltimore) who sponsored the vetoed bill said "it's a rip-off."
If Gov. Marvin Mandel's veto is sustained, however, C&P still could not seek to institute the charges before the current legislative session ends in mid-April because of another bill that was signed by Mandel last spring.
Keane supported his pisition by citing a report made to the Public Service Commission as part of the signed bill that imposed the one-year moratorium on initiating the charges. It showed that half of all C&P customers in a 30-day period made no calls to 411 operators, and that three-fourths placed three or fewer. But one residential customer called information a total of 404 times during the month studied, and one business used the service 20,000 times.
Also testifying in favor of the plan was Martin H. Freeman, who said he suggested the idea to C&P three years ago, when he was people's counsel. Freeman said he came up counter a large, sweeping rate increase that was then before the PSC.
"I thought it was a good step for the consumer," said Freeman adding that its adoption would bring "definite benefits to rate payers."
But several of the delegates objected to specific parts of the plan. Judith Toth (D-Montgomery) suggested exempting calls seeking numbers of new residents, unlisted numbers and out of area subscribers. Patricia Aikens (D-Anne Arundel) found it "outrageous" that C&P would try to charge for dialing 411 for numbers not in its directories.
W. Henry Thomas (D-Eastern Shore) thought C&P might eliminate its cutrate charges to its 30,000 or so employes before charging for information, while Pinkney A. Howell (D-Baltimore) worried about the hundreds of jobs that eventually would be lost if the proposal were implemented.
Del. John X. Ward (D-Montgomery), who is not a member of the committee, dropped in on the hearing long enough to complain about support of the measure by the people's counsel. He said later he was "outraged" that a tax-supported lawyer would try to overturn "the only bill antagonistic to a public utility approved by the legislature in 25 years."
Noting that Mandel referred in his veto message to the fact that 13 other states have approved charges for calls to 411, Ward said "every state that falls in like odds ammunition for AT & T's campaign in the next state."
Orville Wright, C & P's lobbyist at the State House, said he plans a busy weekend of trying to influence legislators to sustain the veto "because it's in the interest of the vast majority of our customers."
Wright said he doubted the company would apply to implement the charges soon because it already has a rate increase application pending that would raise charges to customers between 14 and 19 per cent.
The full legislature overrode three other Mandel vetoes today on this second day of the new session.
One of the new laws increases the number of truck weighing stations on interstate highways in Maryland from three to five. Proponents contended it could earn the state $2.3 million annually in increased fines from over-loanded trucks. In his veto message, Mandel had said the stationary weighing stations envisioned by the bill are less efficient than mobile stations.
A second law, sponsored by Del. Craig Knoll (D-Prince George's), requires state-licensed, mental-care facilities to provide individualized care plans for each patient, and to periodically review the plans.
The third measure approve The switching from counties to the state of the cost of court-ordered mental examinations.