Another good session for utilities lobby

When the lobbyists talk, Md. legislators listen, vote their way

13 agents for Verizon alone

Bills for consumers and environment fall before opposition

March 25, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. has been transformed into Constellation Energy Group. Bell Atlantic has mutated into Verizon. The names change, but in Annapolis the clout remains the same.

The 2001 legislative session has brought multiple reminders that, despite deregulation and mergers, Maryland's old-line public utility companies still rank among the most powerful lobbying entities in the State House.

Lawmaker after lawmaker has introduced bills aimed at benefiting consumers or the environment, only to see them fail after running into opposition from utility lobbyists.

Legislators have come to learn that when they see Verizon's Sean Looney or Constellation's Mary Dempsey testify against legislation, it's in serious trouble. And when Constellation's R. Clayton Mitchell, a former House speaker, starts working against a bill, it's warm-up time to play taps.

Del. Leon Billings, a frequent antagonist of corporate interests, said the utilities have been enormously effective in defeating legislation that would expose them to more competition.

"You would have thought one of the benefits of deregulation would have been a diminished influence of these monopolies," said the Montgomery County Democrat. "It seems to be just as great."

Despite many tries, Billings says he's never won passage of a bill the power companies didn't like. Just Wednesday, a House committee killed his bill to let local governments act as bulk buyers of electricity on behalf of their residents.

That vote was one of a series of victories for the state's dominant electric utilities, including Allegheny Energy Inc. and Potomac Electric Power Co. as well as Constellation.

On Tuesday, a Senate committee dispatched a bill that would have broken up the power companies. The panel then killed an energy conservation bill strongly backed by environmentalists. On Wednesday, a Senate panel turned down legislation putting economic pressure on utilities to use more energy from "clean" sources.

Bob Fleishman, Constellation's vice president for corporate affairs and a member of the lobbying team, said it's been a good year for his company.

"We have had a fair amount of success and we've worked very hard," he said. Asked when the company last suffered a significant defeat in Annapolis, he had to go back to 1998.

Verizon's Looney has been similarly successful.

Just last week, a House committee killed off the third and final telephone competition bill to come before it this session - a bill Verizon did not oppose outright but sought to amend heavily.

Earlier in the session, the same panel voted down two bills the phone company strongly opposed - one that would have forced a split of its retail and wholesale operations and another that would have created a task force on competition in the local telephone industry.

"It's been a great year. There were a couple of bills we were very concerned about," Looney said. About 20 bills were introduced this year that would have hurt his company, but the utility managed to amend or defeat all of them, he said.

Verizon, Constellation and other utility companies that lobby in Annapolis field strong teams of highly professional lobbyists who are closely identified with their companies. Most of them supplement their in-house efforts with "hired guns," but their primary spokesmen are employees.

The companies say they need strong lobbying teams because so many bills are introduced that affect their interests. Last year, for instance, PEPCO listed in its disclosure form 68 bills it cared enough about to send in its lobbyists.

The utilities back their lobbyists with some of the deepest pockets in Annapolis.

Last year, a fairly quiet year for utility issues, Constellation reported spending $112,742 on lobbying expenses.

But when electric deregulation was on the General Assembly agenda in 1999, the company shelled out more than $1.3 million for a highly successful lobbying campaign - making it the No. 1 spender that year.

PEPCO, which has since sold off its generating plants, spent $471,000 that year to come in second. Allegheny, based in Hagerstown, has spent almost $300,000 over the past two years.

Verizon spent $161,980 last year and $242,038 the year before.

Very little of that money has gone directly into the corporate wining and dining that is part of the Annapolis lobbying game.

Looney said he hasn't taken a legislator to dinner in at least four years. It hasn't hurt his effectiveness at all, he said. "Every lobbyist has his own personal style, but I tend to keep it professional and businesslike."

Makini Street, a spokesman for Constellation, said the power company has also not taken committee members to dinner - a legal if somewhat questionable practice in Annapolis - for the past four or five years.

The utility companies have not been shy about winning goodwill through campaign contributions, however.

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