Governor takes heat for bill on electricity

Consumer advocates and ecologists angry

April 04, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

While the General Assembly spent much of the past three months wrestling with landmark legislation to open the Maryland electricity market to competition, Gov. Parris N. Glendening was largely a bystander, focused instead on issues such as gay rights and a tobacco tax increase.

In the end, a juggernaut of corporate lobbyists and legislative leaders pushed through a deregulation bill that thrills businesses but dismays advocates for the environment and consumers.

Some of those advocates and their supporters in the Assembly are now questioning Glendening's decision to stay out of the fray on what could be the most far-reaching piece of legislation passed in Annapolis in years.

"I think the governor, for the benefit of the people, should have weighed in earlier and heavier," said Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's Democrat and a sharp critic of the deregulation bill's treatment of environmental and consumer issues.

"It's always nice to play the game from the stands. But in this case, he should have been on the field," Hubbard said.

The measure given final approval by the Assembly on Friday will allow new electricity companies to come into Maryland and compete for customers beginning next year. It provides a rate cut of at least 3 percent to residential users who stay with their current utility.

Consumer advocates were unhappy the rate cut was not larger, however, and environmentalists lobbied in vain for provisions to safeguard air quality and promote cleaner energy.

Despite some concerns about the bill's final shape, Glendening said Friday that he will sign it into law. Business leaders say the measure is critical to their efforts to compete with companies in other states.

In December, Glendening vowed to take an active part in the Maryland deregulation debate -- a debate that is being played out in state capitals around the country -- and said he would insist on protections for homeowners and the environment.

But after laying out those priorities, Glendening and his aides did little to make sure the Assembly heeded them during weeks of hearings, back-room meetings and voting sessions, according to lawmakers and others involved in the process.

The governor has worked assiduously to pass his legislative agenda, dangling public works projects and other favors to sway on-the-fence lawmakers on issues such as his bill to ban discrimination against gay men and lesbians.

But he spent no such political capital trying to influence votes on the deregulation issue.

Only as a Senate committee neared the end of its deliberations on the matter did Glendening send down proposed amendments to the bill.

Lawmakers were annoyed by the governor's home-stretch intrusion and dismissed nearly all of his proposals.

"I begged the governor to get involved in this issue," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a key proponent of deregulation. "For whatever reason, the governor and his people chose not to participate in the early discussions."

Del. Ron Guns, chairman of the House committee that handled deregulation, said the governor was "absolutely not engaged in our process."

"That forced us to make a decision on our own," said Guns, an Eastern Shore Democrat.

He and other supporters of the legislation say they passed a balanced bill that protects the interests of consumers while giving businesses the level playing field they need to compete.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, the leading environmental advocate in the Senate, said he believes the governor and opponents of the measure were overrun by the "army" of lobbyists working for the bill with legislative leaders such as Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

The final product, Frosh said, does not meet the standards set by the governor months ago. "Looking at it today, I think it shows the governor probably should have done it differently," said Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat.

Glendening defended his role in the deregulation debate.

"You only have so much resources. That wasn't our main agenda," Glendening said. "We tried to make it better and did make it better. We pushed and got a number of improvements."

Legislators did accept a scaled-back version of one of Glendening's suggestions -- a minimum 3 percent cut in utility rates for consumers.

The governor had sought a 7.5 percent cut.

The governor's final decision on the bill came Friday.

With consumer advocates and environmentalists pressuring Glendening to veto the measure, a spokesman said the governor would "thoroughly review the bill, line by line" before deciding whether to sign it.

Two hours later, Glendening issued a statement saying he will sign the complicated, 73-page legislation but expressed his concerns that the bill did not include stronger environmental or consumer protections.

The calculation appeared one of political reality: It was unlikely that the votes could have been found to stop the Assembly from overturning the veto. The legislation was approved 95-34 by the House and 34-13 by the Senate.

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