Annapolis power play is possible

Approval expected on deregulation bill, but governor may veto

Override would be likely

Glendening sought more protections for public, environment

April 02, 1999|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Gady A. Epstein | Timothy B. Wheeler and Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

General Assembly leaders put the finishing touches yesterday on a bill that would let Marylanders choose their power company, putting pressure on Gov. Parris N. Glendening to sign the pro-business measure or jeopardize his top legislative priorities.

A joint conference committee hammered out the last major differences between two similar electricity deregulation bills approved by the House of Delegates and Senate.

The final measure includes a rate reduction of 3 percent to 7.5 percent for residential customers who stay with their utilities, and it would create a $34 million fund to help the poor pay their bills.

The compromise version is to be presented today to both chambers, where approval is considered certain. The only question is whether the margin will be large enough to override a possible gubernatorial veto.

Glendening, rebuffed in his 11th-hour attempts to get more consumer and environmental protections in the legislation, gave no indication yesterday what he would do. "We'll take a look at it," he said.

Businesses have been pressing for legislation opening the electricity market to competition, hoping to reduce their power bills 10 percent to 15 percent. Utilities, recognizing that neighboring states are moving to deregulate, also support ending their decades-old, state-regulated monopolies.

Consumer advocates, though, want larger rate reductions for residential customers, saying that they are unlikely to save much through competition. Environmentalists, worried that deregulation will produce more air pollution, have called for provisions promoting energy efficiency and renewable power, such as solar and wind.

The business community objects to deeper rate cuts, saying they could discourage new electricity suppliers from entering the state. Businesses also balk at subsidizing environmental programs through their power bills.

Legislative leaders have been pressing to get final approval of the measure by week's end, fearful that delay could allow the governor to block it with a veto.

Under the state constitution, if the General Assembly approves a bill by Monday, the governor would have to accept or reject it by the session's final day, April 12. Should he veto the measure, lawmakers could try immediately to override him with a three-fifths majority.

A veto override would seem likely because both the House and Senate passed deregulation bills by overwhelming margins.

Tax-break proposal

But a related measure providing a property tax break for the utilities also is scheduled for House and Senate votes today, and some legislators who had voted for deregulation showed signs of wavering yesterday when confronted with the tax bill.

House leaders tried to win preliminary approval of the tax bill yesterday, but they backed down after delegates complained that they needed more time to evaluate how much revenue counties stand to lose under the measure.

The tax bill would give the state's four investor-owned utilities a 50 percent reduction in the property taxes they pay on their power plants -- a break worth $41.3 million a year. The state would provide grants to the 11 counties with power plants, but those counties would lose a combined $8 million.

"I do not understand this bill, but I do understand it will have a substantial effect on my county," Del. C. Richard D'Amato, an Anne Arundel County Democrat, said in urging a one-day delay.

Despite the holdup on the tax bill, House leaders remained confident they could put both bills on the governor's desk by the end of today.

Turning on the pressure

Senate leaders increased pressure on Glendening, dropping hints they might hold up measures sought by the governor -- such as collective bargaining for state employees -- unless he yields on deregulation.

"There are many things important to us, and things important to him, and we're trying to work well together," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Finance Committee.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller added, "Tommy Bromwell's got collective bargaining in his committee. Barbara Hoffman's got the tobacco tax in her [Budget and Taxation] committee "

Lobbyists embrace bill

Lobbyists for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., for major industry and for the poor embraced the deregulation bill worked out by the conference committee.

"There are certainly some things in this that don't go as far as we would have liked, but we think it's a balanced bill," said Robert Fleishman, BGE's vice president of corporate affairs and general counsel.

Gary Alexander, lobbyist for a coalition of businesses and energy companies, predicted, "The electric suppliers are looking forward to coming to Maryland to offer choices, new technology, jobs and lower prices to consumers."

"It's going to help a lot of people who need it desperately and add a much needed measure of equity to the deregulation process," said David Conn, lobbyist for a coalition of advocates for the poor.

`Worst deregulation bill'

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