Assembly's patience urged with energy deregulation

`It's still too early to say competition is not alive'

March 27, 2002|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Even as they offered support for legislation that would create a task force to monitor electricity deregulation, regulators, utilities and energy suppliers urged state lawmakers yesterday to be patient as competition develops in Maryland.

The state "must stay the course" and allow the 1999 deregulation law to "stand the test of time," said industry representatives at a joint hearing held by two powerful legislators who recently introduced a bill to create a joint oversight committee on electric customer choice and competition.

Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell and Del. John A. Hurson co-sponsored the bill. The legislation was prompted by a report issued in January by the Office of People's Counsel that stated that deregulation has produced little competition and new services for residential customers since it began in July 2000. The report urged the General Assembly to re-examine the law to ensure that the state's most vulnerable customers are protected once price caps begin expiring in July 2003.

"It's still too early to say competition is not alive," said Commissioner Ron Guns of the Maryland Public Service Commission. "We're cautious because it's complex, and it's gotten more complex because of what happened in California. We have mechanisms in place to move forward.

"The system has not failed us or our customers," Guns said. "Choice takes time."

But People's Counsel Michael J. Travieso reminded lawmakers that, despite a "great deregulation law" that provided price caps for residential customers, only 14 out of 1.4 million residential customers in Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s service territory have switched to another energy supplier.

"You've worked hard to give residential customers reasonable prices, but the period of time is going to run out," Travieso said. "I'm so happy there is going to be this task force" because the problems of residential customers are "unique."

But energy suppliers and utilities also warned lawmakers that while it is important to monitor the progress of competition, any changes to the state's deregulation law could do more harm than good.

Yesterday, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell assured members of the audience that the state is not backing away from its deregulation plan.

"We're not looking to make any changes of any major substance to the law," said Bromwell, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "That is not the intent of this bill. This group is just looking to tweak it if need be."

Hurson, who chairs the House Environmental Matters Committee, said it is likely the bill will pass.

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