A little-noticed bill that may prevent title insurance companies from conducting title searches and limit that work to lawyers was passed by the lawyer-dominated House of Delegates yesterday on a 70-to-13 vote.
Seventeen lawyer-delegates abstained from voting under the House's conflict of interest rule, but numerous others voted on the bill, which quietly passed through a House Committee and final House passage without benies from searching real estate titles insurance companies.
Even after its final passage, it was difficult to find out if the bill would in fact prevent title insurance companies from searching real estate titles. The bill's patron, Del. Don C. Dunford (D-Taxewell) said he didn't "think" it would, adding, "You know, these lawyers get me to put these bills in and I don't know what they mean sometimes."
Majority Leader A. L. Philpott (D-Henry), who is generally regarded as a font of knowledge on questions pertaining to the Virginia code, brushed aside a reporter's questions about the bill.
Confusion surrounding the bill is an example of what occasionally happens at this point in the General Assembly. Next Monday is the Assembly's self-imposed deadline for consideration of House and Senate bills originating the respective chambers and committee chairmen are rushing to clear their dockets. The House is working overtime to dispose of all proposed legislation. There were 228 measures before the House yesterday, including the unnoticed lawyers' bill.
Title insurance companies check all claims to a piece of property before a potential purchaser acquires a clear title, and then insure the homeowner against future claims against his ownership. Until recently, title searches, which involve researching land records and deeds, were the sole province of lawyers in Virginia.
Title insurance companies, which often promise to do the work for a flat fee that is generally less than that charged by lawyers, have been in conflict with the state bar association over who can search titles according to former Del. Herbert N Morgan, a title insurance company executive.
A least one court decision, which ruled that the title companies had the right to search titles, has been appealed, according to another title company ececutive.
It looks like they want to put us out of business," said John W. Underwood, a vice president of the Chicago Title Co. in Arlington County. He said the bill the House passed would result in higher costs to consumers.
The bill would exclude the title insurance companies from searching titles by making that activity a "practice of law." "Corporations can't practice law," Underwood said, "only individuals can be admitted to the bar."
Earlier yesterday, a House committee worked out a compromise to three proposals to abolish the controversial fuel adjestment clause on electric bills. That clause is the device by which utility companies pass on increased fuel costs and it has been more and more frequently attacked by politicians and consumer groups who say utilities use it to absorb costs of inefficient management that should come out of company profits instead.
Utility executives argue that the clause is not a profit-making device and its abolition would result in higher consumer costs.
The compromise approved by the House Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee would require utilities to project rates one year in advance, including in those projections expected fuel increases.The State Corporation Commission would conduct a review every three months to see if the projections were above or below actual costs.
If the SCC finds that the actual costs resulted from inefficiency - failure to use the "most economical fuel generation mix," failure to make every effort to minimize fuel costs, or mismanagement - rate increases to cover those costs would not be allowed.
The compromise was supported by two consumer groups. "This will go a long way toward solving the problems consumers have had with the fuel adjustment clause," according to Consumer Congress spokesman Taylor Cousins.
Consumers have complained that since the fuel adjustment clause is passed on automatically without public hearings, the SCC has no power to find out if the increased rates are fair. This proposal, everyone agrees, is not going to or intended to result in rate decreases.
The only person who objected to the compromise was Del. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who said it "institutionalizes the fuel adjustment clause . . . all we've done is bury it."
During its session yesterday, the Senate:
Passed and sent to the House a bill that would prohibit oil companies form operating additional service stations in the state, including the increasingly popuplar self-service stations. Oil companies would be percreasingly popular self-service stations. Supporters of the bill said it would help keep independent operators - who often lease stations from oil companies - in business. Critics who included Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell Jr. (R-Alexandria), said the bill would hurt the smaller refiners, lessen competition and lead to an increase in the price of gasoline.