A little after 8:30 a.m. one day this week the chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee unexpectedly pulled the session's most significant utility regulation bill out of a stack on his desk. In an instant, an amendment was offered to gut it.
Ten minutes later, before many of the committee's members had even arrived for the early-morning meeting, it was all over. The amendment had been accepted, thwarting a drive to curtail large gas and electric rate increases in Maryland that the state's own utility commission says are unjustified.
Now, committee members and other legislators are charging that the chairman of Environmental Matters, Torrey Brown (D-Baltimore) and his ally, Kay Bienen (D-Prince George's), handed a favor to the state's powerful utility company lobby by voting on the rate measure while half a dozen of its supporters, enough to reverse the action, were absent.
"I'm afraid that committee has been rather heavily influenced by the state utility lobby," said the state Public Service Commission's People's Counsel, Jack Keane, whohad commitments from a solid majority of the committee's members to support the bill.
It's just unbelievable," said State Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's), whose own state panel apprroved the measure unanimously this week. "Here we have the utility companies making out like gangbusters, and still those people are ignoring the consumer's interests."
Brown and Bienen didn't see it that way. "I don't thinkthose people (who supported the bill) understood the issue," Brown said. As to the committee's action to vote on the bill while its supporters were absent, Brown remarked: "That's tough. They were late."
At issue in the bill was an unusual rate-increase procedure for utility companies that was adopted by the legislature in 1977 and has been the source of controversy -- and fat hikes in the gas and electric billsof state consumers -- ever since.
The procedure, known informally as "make-whole," was designed to allow utility companies who serve the state, including Pepco and Washington Gas Light, to obtain quick rate increases. Its provisions, which were opposed by the rate-setting Public Service Commission (PSC even before they were enacted, allow a utility to apply for a hike on the basis of technical accounting issues only, rather than the wide range of issues studied by the PSC in a regular rate case. They also require a decision in 90 days, rather than the normal four to six months.
Since 1978, the PSC and consumer groups have been attempting to persuade the legislature to repeal the make-whole provision, arguing that it forces them to grant almost automatic rate increases to utilities, regardless of whether the commissioners feel the increases are justified.
Meanwhile, utility companies have taken full advantage of make-whole, filing an average of two out of every three requests for rate increasesunder it, and obtaining a range of 31 to 100 percent of what they ask for, compared to the PSC's record in major cases of recent years of giving utilities about 15 percent of their rate increase requests, according to a study last year by The Washington Post.
For two years in a row the Environmental Matters Committee killed measures to abolish make-whole, including one that passed the full Senate in the final days of last year's session. This year, however, after a special joint subcommittee of the legislature studied the issue over the summer and introduced a bill banning the procedure for all but small utility companies, it appeared the state's regulators and consumer advocates might finally have their way.
But then came the Environmental Matters voting session, called by Brown for 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. There are conflicting accounts of what, exactly, took place, but these facts are sure: Brown brought up the bill early in the meeting without prior warning, Bienen was ready with her amendments and the bill's opponents were present and ready to vote, and at least six committee members who supported the bill had not yet arrived.
Accounts conflict over how long the committee waited before voting. Brown estimates it was 9:15, 45 minutes after the scheduled meeting time, while Bienen remembers the time as 8:50. Other delegates, such as Tom Mooney (D-Prince George's), an opponent of make-whole who missed thevote, swear they walked in at 8:40 to discover the issue had been disposed of. "It crossed the line of good and fair behavior," Mooney says.
In any case, the tardiness of the committee members was hardly unusual -- meetings in Annapolis are routinely late in getting started. Yesterday, for example, another 8:30 a.m. voting session scheduled by Brown did not start until 8:45, while today the committee's hearings, set for 1:30 p.m., somehow did not get underway until nearly half an hour later.
Brown and other committee members say legislative customs are no excuse. And they defend Bienen's amendment, which would place limits on the use of make-whole but leave it intact for the large utility companies, as the best solution to the problem. As evidence, they cite a special study commission composed of legislators, state officials and utility lobbyists who studied make-whole in 1979and agreed on similar amendments.
But committee members who thought they had the votes to repeal make-whole say thatthey hope the committee's controversial action will be reversed on the House floor next week. "People always straggle into meetings," says Mooney, "and that is not the way to resolve an emotional issue."