The Maryland House of Delegates overturned committee amendments tonight that opponents say would have gutted a bill designed to slow down utility rate increases in the state.
The 65-to-59 vote to reject the weakening provisions appeared to assure House passage of the original bill championed by the state's own ratesetting Public Service Commission and by consumer advocates.
"I'm a big free enterprise man," Del. Timothy Maloney (D-Prince George's) told his colleagues tonight, "but doggonit, this is really something. The amendments before you are a hoax. They completely reverse the posture of the [original] bill."
At issue was the so-called "makewhole" procedure -- the only one of its kind in the nation -- that, since 1977, has allowed the state's gas and electric companies to gain quick approval of their rate requests.
A summer task force recommended repealing the provision as it applies to large utilities. The big utility companies had opposed the measure and sought an amendment retaining their right to rapid rate increases. Under "make-whole," a decision must be rendered in 90 days rather than after the normal period of four-to-six months and utilities may apply for increases on the basis of technical accounting issues only, rather than the wide range of issues studied by the PSC in a regular rate case.
At an early morning session last week, the House Environment Matters Committee adopted the utilities-backed amendments, before several panel members opposing them had arrived.
One delegate tonight termed the committe action "surreptitious."
Environmental Matters Chairman Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore) defended his committee's actions. The utilities would get their increases "sooner or later," he said, adding that the committee amendments would "repair a problem." l
"The regular procedure takes a very long time and costs a lot," Brown said. "This is a more efficient and more responsive way to regulate."
Brown said the bill, even as amended, retains other features sought by consumers. "It is what we think of as the best of both worlds," he said. "It doesn't throw the baby out with the bath water."
Del. Thomas J. Mooney (D-Prince George's) disagreed. By hewing to the line of the large utilities, he said, the amendments in effect were letting "the fox define how the chicken coop is built."