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BY COLUMNISTS

| Joe Charlebois | Guest Columnist | Harry M. Covert | Norman M. Covert | Ken Kellar | Patricia A. Kelly | Edward Lulie III | Tom McLaughlin | Patricia Price | Cindy A. Rose | Richard B. Weldon Jr. |

DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


March 6, 2006

General Assembly Journal 2006 – Part 9

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Two of my bills are making their way through the legislative process, one with a bullet, one with an anchor.

Last week’s Journal focused on House Bill 260, the Utility Consumer Protection Act. It had a hearing before the House Economic Matters Committee, and was written to require utility companies to give advance, written notice to property owners, who would be affected by a planned transmission line, much earlier in the process than current law requires.

I based the language on the experience of Urbana residents who had serious problems dealing with the Allegheny Power’s Urbana Loop project. Allegheny notified three residents of the fact that a major 2.1-mile, 230kv transmission line would be built across their property just a few weeks before a public hearing before the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The bill required that notice be given to all property owners 2500 feet on either side of the proposed line, a total of 5000 feet. The notice requirement was moved up by as much as a year by connecting it to the filing of the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN).

As soon as the bill was filed, the legislative liaison for Allegheny Power contacted me to let me know that they were adamantly opposed to the bill. Constellation and BGE followed close behind, equally unimpressed by my concern and motivation.

Right behind the utility companies was the Public Service Commission (PSC). The chief hearing examiner contacted me on behalf of the chairman, former Del. Ken Schisler, to let me know the PSC would object to the 2500-foot notice requirement.

You don’t have to smack me on the head to get my attention. With all three of the big Maryland utility providers lining up to oppose my bill, it was apparent that I needed to roll up my sleeves and work on compromise or consensus.

This brings me to an important point about the skills of a legislator. I know it has become fashionable to attack compromise as a negative trait, even a sign of weak resolve or lacking character. One past state senate campaign featured the slogan “Go Along to Get Along” as a pejorative against an incumbent.

In truth, if you don’t understand how to compromise, then you’re wasting your time in the legislature. This is even truer in a legislative body where you find yourself in a distinct minority.

You can fight all day long. If all your constituents expect you to do is fight, then fighting is all you need to do. My short experience has proven that voters back home expect more than a good fight. They also expect some accomplishments, especially some that provide them with a tangible benefit.

So armed with my compromise hat, I scheduled a meeting with Del. Derrick Davis (D., PG), the chairman of the Economic Matters Committee. I asked him what he thought I needed to do to overcome the obvious objection of the utility companies.

He suggested I figure out how to address the 2500-foot notice requirement while retaining the public involvement component. Armed with that suggestion, I scheduled meetings with both Allegheny Power and PSC representatives.

I offered to remove the 2500-foot notice requirement completely, replacing it with the need for the utility to file a Community Outreach Plan at the same time the utility companies’ file the CPCN application. This outreach plan would have to address how the community that would be impacted by the application will be told about those impacts.

This is a whole lot less onerous than being forced to send a registered letter to everyone within 5000 feet of the proposed line, but it still keeps my bill in a posture where folks will know much sooner than they would have before.

So the bill hearing was scheduled for Tuesday February 28. We arranged for two residents of the Urbana area, both directly affected by the loop line, to travel down to Annapolis to tell their stories.

The day before that scheduled hearing, the PSC staffer I’d been dealing with called to tell me that the commission had decided, as a group, to require the utility companies to incorporate the concept of community outreach through regulation, eliminating the need for a new law.

Unfortunately, the call came in Monday evening while I was in the House Chamber. My session secretary doesn’t work on Mondays, so the message was stuck in the phone system until Tuesday morning.

So Tuesday arrives, along with my Urbana constituents, and we all converged on the Economic Matters Committee room. I presented my bill, an attorney with the Office of People’s Counsel gave it her support, and then Stanley Baker and Rob Marmet from Urbana told their stories. They did an excellent job; their neighbors should be proud!

Finally, Allegheny Power expressed their strong opposition to the bill. In a rare show of good faith, Allegheny’s lobbyist indicated that the company had learned a valuable lesson from the Urbana experience. He said that they would do more community outreach in the future. We’ll see.

There were a few committee questions, including some from Chairman Davis. I cannot predict the future, especially as it relates to politics, but I would guess that since I was forced to disclose that the PSC was willing to do what I wanted short of a change in state law, committee members will feel comfortable killing my bill.

Anyway you cut it, this is a policy victory. Having the state regulatory agency take my idea and incorporate it into their regulatory process means that they felt it had merit. Further, Allegheny’s acknowledgement means that while my neighbors were forced to suffer from lack of notice and information, future affected properties might not suffer the same fate. * * * * * * * * * * On a much happier note, my Open Meetings bill is sailing along through the legislative process. Amended to clarify some definitions, my bill passed the committee voting session unanimously. The bill hit the Floor on second reader last Wednesday, with the third reader vote scheduled by early next week.

After that comes the Senate, where a bill similar to mine was filed but hasn’t advanced yet. I’ll have to don the compromise hat again, this time trying to figure out what I have to do to get support from Sen. Paula Hollinger (D., Baltimore Co.), the chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environment Committee.

If I were not motivated by trying to obtain a meaningful policy outcome, then I would just refuse to back off and blame someone else when my bills failed. Frankly, it’s much better to celebrate a decent policy outcome than it is to sit and mope about a lack of success.

(Editor’s Note: House Bill 698, Mr. Weldon’s Open Meeting Law, passed the House of Delegates on Friday unanimously – 141-0. It requires any public body to disclose, at their next regularly scheduled public meeting, the date/time/place of any closed meeting and a synopsis of the discussion or any actions taken during the closed portion. It also changes the definition section of the open meetings act to eliminate any and all reference to executive function; and it defines all of those functions as "administrative," thereby eliminating confusion about forms of government versus types of meetings.)



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