Senate targets power firms' advantage over `little guys'

Would bar trademark use in variety of businesses

March 27, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The "little guy" scored a legislative victory yesterday as the Maryland Senate voted to bar large power companies from using their well-known trademarks to compete with a variety of small businesses.

The legislation, which passed on a 37-7 vote, now goes to the House of Delegates.

The bill would prohibit Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and Potomac Electric Power Co. from continuing to use the BGE and PEPCO trademarks in the heating and air-conditioning, refrigeration, appliance, plumbing and home improvement businesses. The measure would also affect companies such as Allegheny Energy, which would be barred from entering those lines of business under its own trademark.

Small-business owners welcomed the Senate vote, which comes after a decade-long struggle.

"It's a great day for us," said Dean Landers, owner of an appliance service and sales company in Baltimore. "It will be a better day when the House does the same."

The Senate voted after hearing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Thomas L. Bromwell, the bill's sponsor, urge his colleagues to "let the little guy survive in the marketplace."

Owners of small companies have long complained that affiliates of BGE and PEPCO have enjoyed an unfair advantage by using the brand awareness the utilities have built as regulated monopolies to compete in other industries.

For many years, a coalition of companies calling itself the Maryland Alliance for Fair Competition has banded together to lobby the General Assembly to curb the utilities' retail and home repair business. This year, they found a powerful benefactor in Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat who as chairman wields enormous pull over the power companies.

At Bromwell's request, BGE sat out the debate and declined to unleash its formidable lobbying operation to oppose the bill.

Bromwell confirmed that he had met with Christian Poindexter, chairman of BGE's parent Constellation Energy Group Inc., to gain the company's neutrality.

"They more or less said we don't like it, we won't help you but we won't hurt you," Bromwell said. "There were no threats."

BGE spokesman Charles Welsh confirmed that the company was sitting out the debate. PEPCO, Allegheny, Washington Gas and Connectiv - the state's other major utilities - testified against the bill.

If the bill passes, it is virtually certain to be challenged in court.

Opponents contend the legislation violates the U.S. Constitution by infringing on free speech, property rights and interstate commerce.

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