They are called the "crazies," the outspoken minority on the House Environmental Matters Committee whose critics say they walk in lock-step opposition to anything they perceive as helping the utility companies--usually while watching their own favorite consumer bills crushed under lopsided majorities.
On the other side are the "turkeys," the committee majority that has traditionally kept most consumer legislation--from mandatory bottle deposits to elected public service commissioners--from ever reaching the House floor.
But this year, the "crazies" finally won a round. By a one-vote margin, the committee last week approved a proposal that People's Counsel Frederick H. Hoover called "the most important piece of utility legislation this year."
The bill, sponsored by Del. Joan Pitkin (D-Prince George's), survived a preliminary vote in the House today after a rancorous debate in which the committee's schism spilled onto the floor.
The bill would authorize the Public Service Commission to set lower utility rates for the poor, the elderly or any other group. The PSC has long contended that it is prohibited from even discussing lower rates for any group because of an antidiscrimination clause in the law.
In the battle for proconsumer legislation, the committee traditionally has been the key hurdle. This time, said Del. Kay G. Bienen (D-Prince George's), "We just didn't have enough turkeys."
The "crazies," who view the bill as a chance to score an election-year upset over the "turkeys," say it merely gives the PSC the authority to study the issue. Utility lobbyists and their friends argue that lower rates for the poor would mean higher utility bills for everyone else.
"It was a fluke that it got out," said Hoover of the People's Counsel's office. Added Del. Thomas Mooney (D-Prince George's). "We'll never get another one out."
The bill passed the committee last Friday by a 12-to-11 vote. The chairman (and chief turkey), Del. Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore), could have cast a vote and tied the tally, which would have killed the bill. But Brown, who has to keep peace between the "turkeys" and the "crazies," said he would never do that.
That sharp of a split is unusual in most committees of the House, where votes usually are sent to the floor by consensus. But for the Environmental Matters, which deals with many emotional issues, close votes are more common.
"It's not even ideological," Mooney said. "It's almost a personality conflict."
"We have a progressive wing on that committee that most other committees don't have," said Del. Steven V. Sklar (D-Baltimore), who calls himself "a progressive realist."
"People on our committee tend to personalize issues," Beinen said. "We get all of the health issues. We get all of the environmental issues--the air, the fish, the bay. So we get people who get emotionally involved with our issues."
On the Ways and Means Committee, "we try to work out a consensus," said vice chairman Gerard F. Devlin (D-Prince George's). "On Environmental Matters, they almost separate into political parties. It's institutionalized."