House Room 4, filled with Virginia legislators and lobbyists from utility companies, shook with laughter this morning as House Majority Leader Thomas W. Moss (D-Norfolk) turned to the sponsor of a bill to give consumers more clout in utility rate cases and assessed its prospects.
"Do you know," Moss asked, "how to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?"
Moments later the Corporations, Insurance and Banking Committee effectively killed the bill, adding it to a growing list of measures whose defeats have turned House Room 4 into what some legislators say is a graveyard for consumer legislation.
"It's an old story," said Del. Lewis P. Fickett (D-Fredericksburg), who supported the bill killed today. "All of the important committees, but particularly Corporations, Insurance and Banking, are traditionally and continually stacked for utility interests and consumer-oriented bills get only two to four votes."
"The people on the committee are strong believers in free enterprise," agreed state Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who served on the committee while in the House. "I've never seen them totally abandon the consumer but there's no doubt about it, business rules the roost."
Last week, the committee summarily dispatched a bill opposed by the state's banking industry that would have forced banks to pay a penalty for their mistakes just the same as the fees banks charge customers for overdrafts. Two days ago the committee approved a bill that the state insurance commissioner warned would raise auto insurance rates for some motorists by as much as $121 a year.
The bill defeated today would have removed the public utilities department from the State Corporation Commission, which consumer advocates have accused of being soft on rate requests from giant utilities such as Virginia Electric and Power Co. The bill would have established the department as a separate state agency, similar to one in North Carolina that is credited with helping hold down electric rates in the state.
SCC lobbyist Bernard Henderson attacked the bill earlier this week and Vepco lobbyist E. L. (reddy Kilowatt) Crump joined in today, warning that the proposal would "politicize" Virginia's rate-making process. The only full-time consumer lobbyist at the legislature, Barbara Bitters of the Virginia Citizens Consumers Council, was absent from the meeting. So was anyone from Gov. John N. Dalton's office, despite the fact that Dalton had campaigned in 1977 on a platform that supported the proposal.
"Quite frankly I didn't know it was coming up this morning," Dalton said later. "I do think they [the legislators] know my position on it."
The bill went down without even a formal vote because no one on the 20-member panel would make a motion for its passage.
"It was obvious it didn't have a chance," said Fairfax Del. Vincent F. Callaham, a Republican committee member who said he supported the measure but did not move for passage because he knew it would be soundly defeated. "I didn't want to embarrass the sponsor."
Some committee members, including chairman C. Hardaway Marks (D-Hopewell), complained that they had not had enough time to study the bill and iron out minor flaws before a legislative deadline today. "There's a lot of good meat there but there were too many little problems that hadn't been taken care of," he said.
But the bill's sponsor, Del. James Murray (D-Albemarle) noted that the proposal had actually been around for years, noting it was first proposed -- and rejected by the legislators -- four years ago. Murray blamed the defeat on "the cozy relationship" he said exists between the SCC and many lawmakers. And according to Del. Fickett, the fact that lobbyists for the commission and Vepco both opposed the bill was further proof that the agency and the utility are too close.
"Vepco wants to keep its little private preserve over at the SCC," said Fickett, a college political science professor who often champions consumer bills. ""It means you don't have any independent, fair representation for consumer interests."
Lobbyists Henderson and Crump both denied they had collaborated on killing the bill. "I haven't even discussed this bill with Crump," said Henderson, who called "absurd" charges that the commission and the utility were too friendly. "He [Crump] and I have gone tooth and claw here on a lot of issues. . . . Frankly I feel more comfortable opposing them [the utilities] than supporting them."
This has been a good week for Henderson and the SCC, though critics contend their success has come at consumers' expense. Yesterday, a bill to expand the size of the commission from three members to five died in a state Senate committee after its sponsor conceded he lacked the votes for passage. The commissioners, who are elcted by the legislature, had aggressively opposed the measure, which would have diluted their individual powers.
Today Henderson succeeded in stopping a resolution that would have required the commission to establish a consumer counsel office to represent the public interest in rate cases. N its place, the House Corporations Committee passed a resolution encouraging the SCC "to utilize to the extent it seems necessary the independence provided to it in order to perform its utility regulatory duties in the best possible manner." The author of the mild substitute bill: Henderson himself.
"Sure it's watered down," said resolution sponsor Del. Glenn McClanan (D-Virginia Beach), another SCC critic, "but I thought it was better to get that rather than not get anything."
The auto insurance bill, which would have made Virginia's minimum required liability coverage twice as high as any other state's and raised premiums, passed the committee Tuesday thanks to solid backing from legislator-lawyers whose fees in acident cases could rise because of the change. But the House of Delegates killed the measure today by 54 to 40 -- proof to some that consumers have not been completely forgotten.
Said Del. Gladys Keating (D-Fairfax): "It's been a slow process but I think the climate has maybe even gotten a little better over the years."