A group of consumer activists renewed a lobbying effort today for legislation that would create a new organization to monitor utilities in Maryland.
The proposal would actually enlist the aid of the utilities in financing the organization - called a Citizen's Utility Board by allowing consumers to contribute money to it through their monthly utility bills.
An identical measure failed in last year's General Assmebly. This year, however, consumer groups have obtained support from major labor organizations that had opposed the measure fearing that it could encourage a cutback of energy supplies to some industries and lost jobs as a result.
The Maryland Action Coalition proposal would create the board as a "citizens' advocate" before the state public Service Commission, which sets telephone and gas and electric rates.
The coalition staged a press conference today featuring several powerful state senators, including Senate President Steny Hoyer (D-Prince George's ) and Economic Matters Committee Chairman Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore) as supporters, a teddybear (CUB is the acronym for the proposed organization), a song and a skit.
The bill passed the Maryland Senate last year but failed in the House of Delegates.
This year, both Dominic Fornaro head of the Maryland AFL-CIO and the major labor lobbyist in the state, and Alvin Lloyd of the United Auto Workers, say they are in favor of the bill.
"We are wholeheartedly in support - 100 per cent," said Fornaro. "We think it's time the citizens of Maryland had some say" about utility rates.
What the Maryland Action Coalition is lacking, this year as well as last, is apparent support in the House of Delegates. No matter what happens to the CUB proposal in the Senate, it must pass through the House Environmental Matters Committee chaired by Del. John Arnick (D-Baltimore County).
Arnick's committee is the place where the bill died last year. Today, Arnick said he did not oppose the bill last year, but thought that as "big, brand new idea," it deserved extra study.
After months of study, Arnick said today he has still not made up his mind about the bill.
The bill proposes that bills from gas, electric, and telephone companies include either a checkoff box or a separate envelope to allow customers to contribute money to the Citizen's Utility Board.
The board would use the money to research and document claims that many utilities are wasteful and careless with their customers' dollars, spending them for purposes not included in the law guaranteeing them an adequate rate of return. The board would also appear before the Public Service Commission to argue against proposed rate increases.
The board would be run by a 24 member committee elected by consumers who contributed $2 or more in any year.
The efforts of the board would supplement those of the existing people's counsel, the current citizen's representative before the commission. Coalition members said the people's counsel is not well enough funded to do the job he is supposed to do.