A Virginia Senate committee today approved legislation designed to speed up the State Corporation Commission's handling of utility rate increase applications.

The panel struck out a controversial provision in the bill, however, that would have granted such rate increases automatically if the SCC failed to decide the cases within eight months.

The measure, sponsored by Del. Gerald L. Baliles (D-Richmond) and already approved in a tougher version by the House, would force the powerful regulatory agency to decide rate hike requests within five to eight months compared to the 13-month limit in the current law.

As amended today by the Senate committee, the bill would allow utility firms to begin charging the higher rates at the end of five months if the SCC had not ruled on their applications. But the new rates would be subject to refunds with interest to consumers should the SCC ultimately reject the rate increase requests.

"I'm just trying to get the commission to act faster," said Baliles, who argued that the SCC now has the longest time limit in the country for its decision-making.

Though Baliles complained that the bill approved by the Senate panel would not penalize the SCC for delayed rulings, he told the committee that he would urge the House to go along with the measure in its weaker version.

State Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) had earlier opposed the bill but abstained from voting in committee today after deciding that the meausre no longer posed a great threat to consumers.

SCC representatives also opposed the bill, protesting that the agency's three commissioners were not purposely "sitting on rate requests" but were working to decide the applications as quickly as possible.