Passing electricity measure was `leap of faith'

Few of the legislators who voted on it had actually read it

April 03, 1999|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

One thing was clear yesterday: Maryland legislators overwhelmingly approved a bill to deregulate the electric industry.

But did they know what they voted on?

The answer is right there in the text of the 73-page bill:

"The electric company's competitive transition charge shall be reduced by an amount equal to that portion of the competitive transition charge related to the transition costs. "

Got that?

"This is a tough bill," said Sen. Leo E. Green, a Prince George's Democrat who voted against the measure. "We're going to take this bill here and try to understand it in less than an hour? I can't begin to read it in an hour."

Even though the complex legislation affects every resident and business in Maryland, few of the 141 delegates and 47 senators have read it. That's the way things work in Annapolis. A small group of legislators in each house tackles an issue, and the rest of the General Assembly often relies on their judgment.

"I'm afraid we don't know everything that's in it," said House Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a lawyer who is no stranger to complex legal jargon. "We hope and pray and think that they have done what is in the best interests of the people of the state of Maryland."

"It's a leap of faith," said Del. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Prince George's Democrat who voted for the bill. "As often happens with many of these complex bills, you have to rely on the committee system."

The 22-member House Environmental Matters Committee and the 11-member Senate Finance Committee spent hundreds of hours debating the issue. Just four of those legislators, with the House speaker and Senate president, hammered out the final details in conference committee.

"I bet there aren't more than a handful of people in the state who fully understand it," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat who opposed the bill. "It's hard when you plop a 73-page bill in front of people at 9: 15 and say, `Vote on it this morning.' "

Some of the only people who understand every minute detail, many agree, are the lobbyists for the utilities and businesses that wanted the legislation and a few legislative staff members.

The lobbyists essentially wrote the deregulation bills that were filed early in the session, and they were personally involved in the revisions until the final product was printed late Thursday night.

Top lawmakers often took their cues from these lobbyists, even getting answers from them by telephone yesterday to questions posed during the House and Senate floor debates.

And the way the system works, the General Assembly takes its cue from the top lawmakers who worked on the legislation.

"We have a presumption that anything that comes to the floor is good until proven otherwise," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat.

Many legislators argue that the system has to work this way because the intricacies of such complex bills are too subtle to explain to the 188-member assembly.

There's an entire specialized lingo for the electric deregulation debate, with terms such as "stranded costs," "discos," "inside the cap," "outside the cap," "DSM," "aggregator," "cross-subsidization" and "divestiture."

The language in the bill itself can be even more inscrutable.

"The commission shall determine the allocation of the universal service charge among the generation, transmission and distribution rate components of all classes." (Plain English version: Utility regulators will decide exactly how customers will pay for a fund designed to help the poor better afford electricity.)

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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