ANNAPOLIS – House leaders are threatening to kill a last- minute Senate proposal that would set a timetable for electric utility deregulation in Maryland.
Lawmakers said they will strip away a “hodgepodge” of Senate amendments when the bill comes back to the House Environmental Matters Committee, where it is expected to face a vote Wednesday.
“We refuse to concur on Senate amendments so — we’ll take it to conference committee,” said Del. John Hurson, D-Montgomery and House majority leader. “If the parties continue to squabble, House Bill 10 will certainly die and we’ll not be any closer” to deregulation.
But Senate leaders vowed to stand firm on the issue.
Deregulation was thought dead for this session when the Public Service Commission and the state’s electric utilities balked at a proposed year 2000 deadline for utility competition. But the two sides reconsidered last month and agreed to the 2000 deadline.
The issue was revived suddenly two weeks ago, when the Senate tacked that timetable onto HB10, a bill that would have let Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. set up a holding company to prepare for deregulation.
The amended bill passed the Senate last week and is now back before the House Environmental Matters Committee. Del. Ronald Guns, D-Cecil and chairman of the committee, said Tuesday that it was irresponsible of the Senate to pass a timetable when there have not been public hearings on deregulation.
“I don’t think there’s any support for passing this as is,” said Guns, who sponsored HB10. “No one is really looking out here for the residential consumer. We have to take it slow — be sure of what we’re up against.”
But Sen. Thomas Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, said electric competition will lower consumers’ rates and free the industry from excessive regulatory burdens. Bromwell, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, amended the deregulation timetable onto Guns’ bill when it was in his committee.
He called Guns’ allegation that the people have had no voice in the process absurd.
“I don’t feel for one moment that the public has been frozen out,” said Bromwell. “We get paid to act in the best interest of all. I feel very confident that we have done that.”
Even though they agreed to the timetable with the PSC, the state’s utilities have said they oppose the bill as approved by the Senate. They are concerned that there are too many issues still unresolved — restructuring taxes and recovering costs for power generation facilities they were required to build, for example.
Utility leaders and business lobbyists, whose clients are among the utilities’ biggest customers, met for about 20 minutes on the issue Tuesday with House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D- Allegany. Hurson said the speaker told them to work out their differences.
If the House refuses to accept the Senate amendment, the bill will land in conference committee.
Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s and an advocate of the deregulation timetable, said he and Bromwell would be on any conference committee.
“I want lower electric rates for my constituents and clean water and both of those issues Delegate Guns’ committee is thwarting,” said Miller.
Bromwell noted that if the year 2000 deadline is passed, lawmakers would still have two more years to undue any harm.