Power monitor panel is sought

Bill would provide for oversight of deregulation in Md.

March 06, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Wary of changes in the marketplace, two powerful Maryland legislators want to create an oversight committee to monitor the process of electric deregulation that the General Assembly adopted in 1999 and recommend any changes that might be needed.

Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell and Del. John A. Hurson said they will introduce legislation to create the panel within the next few days.

Both legislators emphasized that they are not backing away from the state's deregulation plan, but want to know whether any course corrections are needed before the caps begin coming off residential electricity prices in 2004.

Despite its introduction late in the Assembly session, the legislation will have good prospects because of the clout of its sponsors. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, while Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Since Maryland adopted its deregulation plan, the energy market has been shaken by several landmark events, most notable the California energy crisis and the collapse of Enron Corp.

"It's a shifting landscape," Hurson said.

The House chairman said it makes sense to put together a group of legislators and outside experts to oversee the energy market on a year-round basis and to assess the level of competition. He said he expects the group to come back with its first recommendations in time for the 2003 legislative session.

Details on the composition of the proposed panel were not available yesterday, but Hurson said it would likely include consumer advocates and government officials as well as members of various industry groups with a stake in energy policy.

Bromwell said there is broad agreement that such a committee would be useful.

"Everybody's on board. Everybody thinks it's a good idea," he said.

Bromwell, one of the leaders in crafting the 1999 deregulation bill, said the creation of the panel does not signal a major overhaul of the deregulation legislation. In particular, he said he does not believe an extension of the price caps will be an issue for the panel.

Deregulation, he said, is "working slower that we expected, but it is working."

Price caps on residential accounts will begin coming off in 2004 for Potomac Electric Power Co. and Conectiv Inc. customers in the Washington area and the Eastern Shore. Caps for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s 900,000 customers in the Baltimore area will be lifted in 2006. Western Maryland customers of Allegheny Energy Inc. would follow in 2008.

Michael J. Travieso, the state People's Counsel, said bringing such a committee together is a good idea. He said residential competition has been slow to develop and that less than 3 percent of Maryland households - none of them in the Baltimore area - have a choice of electricity providers.

"There's nobody banging on your door to sell you electricity. We don't know whether in 2005 there's going to be somebody doing that," Travieso said.

The People's Counsel, who represents the interests of residential utility customers Before the Public Service Commission, said lawyers practicing before the regulatory agency have come up with varying interpretations of the 1999 law. He said the advisory committee would be a good forum for helping the legislature draft clarifications.

In January, Travieso issued a report that said deregulation had failed to produce competition and could put residential customers at risk of higher power prices. At the time, both Bromwell and Hurson called the report "premature."

Sharon Sasada, spokesman for BGE, said the utility has no objections to the panel.

"Deregulation has been implemented smoothly and has been working well, and if there is a desire for a committee for more oversight, we are supportive of that initiative," Sasada said.

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