Only a cadre of utility company lobbyists occupied the public gallery of the House Environmental Matters Committee room one day last week when Torrey Brown, the panel's chairman and vote-broker, began to pull the session's consumer-oriented utility bills from a stack on his desk.
"Does anybody want to vote for this?" Brown would ask in a tone betraying his own lack of interest in the issue as he held up each bill file for the committee to see. In every case, hearing little argument, the chairman would put the bill folder aside and mumble: "Okay, next bill."
Within 30 minutes, six of those consumer bills had been erased in a legislative massacre that has become an annual event in this stately, high-ceilinged committee chamber.
Over the past five years, Maryland legislators have proposed scores of new laws and limits for the state's utulity companies in an effort to retard an unprecedented inflationi in the costs consumers pay for their electricity, their heat and their telephohes.
But every year, in the House Environmental Matters Committee and the Senate's Economic Affairs Committee and on the floors of both houses, the vast majority of the bills has been killed at the urging of the utility companies, which last year alone spent at least $185,000 lobbying in Annapolis.
A study by The Washington Post showed that 215 bills were introduced in the four legislative sessions between 1976 and 1979 to limit utility rates, improve services or help consumers pay their bills. Of those, 182 -- or 85 percent -- were voted down by the legislature or vetoed by the governor.
If the 33 bills that were enacted, only two are commonly identified as siginificant pieces of legislation: a 1976 measure broadening the staff resources of the Public Service Commission, which oversees utilities and sets their rates, and a 1978 bill limiting the amount of increased fuel costs that utilities can pass along to their customers.
As the rates of utility companies in Maryland soared -- the six largest utilities received $386.6 million in rate increases from 1973 to 1978 -- dozens of more sweeping measures to hold down consumer costs were killed.
One major proposal that the industry helped defeat would change the basis of rate-making so that the burden of high costs would be shifted away from families of low and moderate incomes. Another key consumer measure rejected by the legislature -- despite support from the Public Service Commission -- would eliminate a rate-making process that allows utilities to obtain a large rate increases quickly and with a curtailed review procedure.
This "make-whole" procedure has been cited by consumer advocates and state officials as a principal reason why Maryland residents are paying much more than their neighbors in the District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia for the same services provided by the same companies.
A 1979 study of utility customers in Maryland and the District of Columbia found that the Maryland residents are paying much more for the same amount of electricity -- as much as 63 percent more than District residents in some cases.
A typical Montgomery County household using 750 kilowatt hours of electricity in November 1979 was charged $43.68 by Potomac Electric Power Co., the study showed. The same utility, meanwhile, charged a District resident only $28.02 for the same amount of electricity. -- A bill of nearly 56 percent less. In effect, said one regulatory official, Maryland Pepco customers are subsidizing District customers to the tune of $10 million a year.
Critics of the utility industry in Maryland readily concede that rate increases often are justified because of rising fuel costs. But they argue that utilities in the state -- with essential support from the legislature -- have obtained the rate hikes too quickly, too frequently and without sufficient regard for how their customers might be affected.
This two-part series examines the forces behind the legislature's record on utility measures, a record that while allowing ever-increasing rates to be paid by consumers, has made Maryland almost a haven for utility companies.
Legislative leaders, lobbyists and consumer advocates give varying explanations for the annual failure of consumer utility measures. While some bills are badly conceived, others, they say, die because of the conservative instincts of legislative leaders and the new philosophy among many of them that elected officials should not tamper in utility affairs.
In the end, howevever, the explanation always turn to legislative influence, and lobbying. Maryland's utility companies, at extraordinary expense, see to it each year that every influential legislator is well informed of their aruments on every relevant bill by articulate spokesmen more than willing to pay for dinner or drinks.
This year, 10 state utulity companies have sent a total of 18 professional lobbyists to Annapolis to work for their causes. Some, like Baltimore Gas and Electric, C&P Telephone and Washington Gas Light, frequently have three or four lobbyists working at one time, making sure that every hearing is covered and industry documents on every bill are distributed.
Their competitors -- the consumers -- do not have a single full-time representative in the legislative halls this year, or even one broad-based group that monitors utility legislation.
The imbalance often means that legislators do not even hear both sides of utility issues from outside parties before voting. The files of the House Economic Matters Committee and Senate Economic Affairs Committee showed 20 utility bills as of last week where committee members heard testimony from someone other than the legislative sponsor. Utility company lobbyistsd testified 40 times on those 20 bills, while average citizens made about half as many appearances.
In five instances, industry lobbyists were the only ones who showed up to testify before the committees on consumer-oriented legislation.
But it is not only in public testimony that the utility companies have an edge in the legislature. Last year the utilities spent at least $185,000 in salaries and extras for the lobbyists in Annapolis.Much of that money went toward the things that frequently can swing a vote: Hotel rooms, well supplied with liquor, where legislators are welcome; dinners and drinks at night; and the constant availability of affable, intelligent businessmen with whom personal rapport and friendship is easy. According to state records, at least $10,000 of the utility money last year was for meals and drinks for legislators.
The preeminent utility lobbyist here, Jim Doyl, who represents Pepco, shares a corner suite of rooms at the Annapolis Hilton with Del. Daniel Minnick (D-Baltimore County), who is the House speaker protem and a member of the Environmental Matters Committee. It is rare that Minnick does not vote with the utility companies.
Minnick, Doyle and a second lobbyist have separate rooms that open into an alcove that, in turn, is separated from the hotel hallway by a locked door. Minnick said that Doyle keeps some of his files and liquor supply in the alcove. "But it's not a suite," he said. "You can check -- we pay our bills separately."
This month, when Del. Paula Hollinger (D-Baltimore County) was appointed as the sole liberal member of an Environmental Matters subcommittee on utility legislatioin, William O'Byrne and John Melcy, lobbyists representing Baltimore Gas and Electric and Washington Gas Light were there to take her out for a long dinner.
Last year Meloy established such a close relationship with Del. Aky Bienen (D-Prince George's), the chairwoman of that subcommittee, he began conducting business out of her office suite. Several of Bienen's colleagues joked that they were having a nameplate printed for one of the office desks: "Del. John Meloy."
And Roger Redden, a lobbyist for Columbia Natural Gas, has so earned the respect of the Public Service Commission's people's counsel -- which represents consumers on utility matters -- that Redden is named on a list of consultants the office uses in its work.
In the final analysis, both sides agree, the lobbying work pays off. Consumer advocates point out that the one piece of legislation on which they most pride themselves -- the 1978 bill limiting fuel pass-through charges -- passed only because dozens of citizens came to Annapolis and worked virtually day and night to ensure its passage. Without that pressure and the widespread publicity about energy costs after a coal strike in western Maryland, the bill would have ended up in the already overflowing consumer wastebasket.
In some cases, of course, legislators don't need lobbyists to learn the utility company's views. Two of the nine members of the Senate's Economic Affairs Committee, Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) and James Simpson (D-Charles) hear about the concerns of the industry through their ownership of stocks and bonds in out-of-state power and utility companies.
The lobbyists also contribute heavily to the campaign coffers of legislators. In the 1978 elections, for example, they distributed nearly $25,000 among several legislative and gubernatorial candidates in the state.
Still, for many key legislators, the lobbying is unnecessary. Several members of the Environmental Matters Committee, for example, openly oppose, as a matter of principle, any piece of consumer-oriented utility legislation that comes before them.
"I don't know why we even take time t consider all these little bills each year that try to curb the Public Service Commissioin from doing its jobm" grumbled Del. Michael Weir (D-Baltimore County) last week as he voted against the telephone service bills that came before the Environmental Matters subcommittee.
Two other delegates who agree with Weir most of the time are Brown, the committee chairman, and Bienen, who has chaired the subcommittee on utility bills for the last two years. And it is in these alliances that the interests of the utility companies are often decisively protected.
This month, for example, when Brown appointed Bienen to chair the subcommittee on utility bills, he assigned four other staunch conservatives on utility issues to work with her on the six-member panel, providing a solid majority against every piece of consumer legislation that had been proposed. Conspicuously absent from the subcommittee were two Environmental Matters Committee members who were sponsoring several of the utility bills.
Later, when the full committee held a voting session on three of the bills reported unfavorably by the subcommittee, two bills on telephone charges received a majority vote in the committee, despite Brown's opposition, because two conservative members of the committee were absent.
So, as the voting session continued on other matters, Brown held up consideration of the final utility bill -- prohibiting cutoffs of heat to low-income families -- while Biene searched the building for the two conservative members. When she returned with them, Brown called the final bill and it was voted down -- by one vote.
When the two telephone bills came up for consideration on the House floors last week, Brown twice asked that debate on them be postponed. Such delays can be fatal to such relatively minor pieces of legislation in the final days of the session. "They are bad bills," Brown explained. "They don't do what their sponsors think they will do."
In his efforts to undercut the consumer advocates this year, Brown has been aided immesurably by a special study commission set up by the legislature two years ago to study utility rates. After holding dozens of hearings and spending nearly $100,000, the commission -- composed of industry and utility representatives, citizens and consumer advocates as well as legislators -- concluded in its final report last month that no major changes were needed in state utility regulation.
Further, the commission report said that the legislature -- whose struggles with utility regulation led to the commission's establishment -- should leave the problems on rate-making and utility services exclusively to the Public Service Commission.
The strongly worded admonition against legislative action on high utility rates has been used as a bludgeon against all consumer measures proposed this year. But an examination of the attendance records and transcripts of that study commission supports the arguments of some of its members that it was heavily weighted in favor of the utility industry from beginning to end.
That is the subject of tomorrow's story.