The chief sponsor of a bill designed to slow the growth of utility rates asked the Maryland Senate today to kill the bill, removing one of the few remaining volatile issues before the General Assembly as it moves into its final week.
Sen. Meyer Emanuel (D-Prince George's) moved that his bill to create a user-funded agency to fight utility rate increases be re-reffered to committee "to save ourselves a lot of time and trouble."
The motion came after the Senate had rejected Emanuel's bid to restore the proposed Citizens' Utility Board a number of powers that were earlier removed from it by amendments in the Senate Economic Matters Committee, which heard the CUB concept challenged in testimony by League of Women Voters representative, in February.
The Citizens' Utility Board, which would have been funded by $2 donations from utility users and composed of persons elected by those who paid the donations would not necessarily result in lower utility bills, and could create a political springboard for utility activists, the leagugue argued.
The death of the bill - which was sponsored by 31 senators' a number large enough to pass the bill in the Senate if all sponsors had supported it - came in the face of heavy opposition by utility companies. The floor fight against it was led by Sen. Edward T. Hall (R-Anne Arundel), who responded to a charge he is a utility spokesman by saying, "I support them, I stood up and supported them, and I'll continue to support them."
The citizens' group that has pushed for two years passage of the bill, Hall charged, would "extract money from Maryland residents under the guise that uilities are abusing them" if the bill passed.
While members of the group were raising money last year for their effort to pass the bill, he said, "they would get back to the office at night and split up whatever money they collected." Of about $400,000 the Maryland Acton Coalition raised in donation, Hall said more than $202,000 was spent on salaries.
The secretary of state's office is investigating Maryland Action oalition to determine if it violated any state fund-raising laws.
The House passed and sent to the governor today two bills affecting the Youghiogheny River Valley in western Maryland.
Despite protests from persons who own property along the river in Garrett and Allegany Counties, the legislature approved a bill that will permit the state to purchased easements along that portion of the river that is included in the year-old scenic and wild rivers program. Residents complained that the original legislation decisions as what color to paint their houses and barns if the structures are visible from the river.
In both the Senate and the House, the press of major legislation has eased, unusual for this time of year in the General Assembly with only eight days to go before adjournment.
In the House, Speaker John Hanson Briscoe was able to find time for a leisurely visit to the barber shop, and several members of the House Environmental Matters Committee, having concluded all of their work last week, were searching for a fourth to play bridge.
Briscoe plans on giving the delegates a breather for a day or two before allowing the House to tackle the capital budget proposal that includes a controversial appropriation to convert an East Baltimore can factory into a prison. "The votes are there" to pass the proposal despite anticipated opposition, Briscoe said.
There are a number of other controversial items, however, that promise to produce lively debates.
The House is expected to pass the Senate-approved increase in the state sales tax from 4 per cent to 5 per cent after much wrangling, and the death penalty, perhaps the most emotional issue before the Assembly this year, is apt to be the subject of a compromise by the two chambers after still more debates.
Anticipating that the House-passed death penalty version will not make it through the Senate, House Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph E. Owens moved today to give a favorable report to the Senate version.
The basic difference between the House and Senate bills is that the Senate version requires an unanimous decision by the jury, after a finding of guilty, to recommend the death penalty, while the House bill requires only a two-thirds vote by the jury, after an unanimous finding of guilty. Under the House bill, the recommendation of the jury would be blinding on the trial judge.
Both versions were opposed by members of the Black Cancus in both the Senate and House. But the Senate version is likely to be passed by the House as a "better than nothing" bill, because the House version seems unlikely to be able to survive a promised filibuster in the Senate.
One local bill that appears headed for trouble is the "omnibus tax" sought by Prince George's County Executive Winfield M. Kelly Jr., who had asked the county's delegation to support the bill because he had claimed that without added tax revenue he could not balance the county budget without increasing the property tax.
Kelly had led many delegates to believe through dire predictions that he would need massive amounts of money to avoid a property tax increase. So when he unveiled his county budget last week with no property tax increase while allowing for $5.2 million in anticipated revenues from the proposed omnibus taxing authority, many delegates were angry.
They said that they had been under the impression that far more than $5.2 million was needed to balance the county budget without a property tax increase.
As a result, about half of the 24 delegates from the county now may vote against the omnibus tax bill, and there appears to be a move to defeat the measure by showing the House that there is not a majority of the county delegation behind the bill when it reaches the floor.
The omnibus tax bill would grant the county broad authority to tax anything not taxed by the state and not considered an excise tax. It would be used to add a 15 per cent tax on telephone usage in the county.