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The Senate gave preliminary approval last night to a plan to help Maryland consumers reduce their electricity consumption but not without a few sparks between the heads of two committees over the best way to help the poor pay their bills.

Sen. Thomas M. "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Finance Committee, presented his panel's reworking of the administration's "Strategic Energy Investment" bill, which would divvy up $140 million expected to fill the state's coffers later this year, when owners of fossil-fueled power plants and factories must buy greenhouse gas emission credits at auction.

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Middleton, a Charles County Democrat, said his panel wanted to give $10 million of the expected windfall to a fund for helping the poor pay their utility bills.

Of the remaining pot, he said, 35 percent would be earmarked for rate relief, with 50 percent dedicated to subsidizing energy conservation efforts, such as providing customers with discounts on energy-efficient appliances or grants to install thermal-pane windows and better insulation. About 4 percent would get absorbed as administrative costs by the Maryland Energy Administration, which would attempt to encourage consumers to reduce electricity use 15 percent by 2015.

Middleton had to fend off a challenge from Democrats, though, on the Senate Education, Health and the Environment Committee. That panel also reviewed the bill and had its own plan for spreading the wealth.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman, and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a member from Prince George's County, argued for their committee's proposal to increase the amount going into the Universal Service Fund - to help poor meet their utility bills - and spend the remaining 85 percent of the auction proceeds on conservation programs.

"Do we want to lower people's electricity bills, or do we want to underwrite their bills?" asked Pinsky.

He and Conway argued that the $1.81 a month in rate relief offered to all utility customers by the Finance plan was trivial, compared with monthly bills running into the hundreds of dollars.

But Middleton said his panel's plan was the balanced and fair - the small rebates would help offset surcharges utilities may impose to cover demand-reduction initiatives they would be undertaking.

The competing proposal from Conway's committee failed, 15 to 31. But that didn't prevent Conway from engaging in a heated debate with Middleton after the session ended late last night. Afterward, she said she doubted she would support the bill in its present form, saying she did not believe it offered meaningful help to poor people to pay their utility bills.

The Senate also turned back populist-sounding bids by Sen. E.J. Pipkin, a Republican from the upper Eastern Shore, to give all the funds from the greenhouse-gas auction back to utility customers in the form of rate relief, or to give back any revenue earned beyond the $140 million that some think is a conservative estimate of how much the auction would raise.

"While teaching people to fish, we're giving them fish,'' Middleton argued, in support of his panel's plan to divide the funds between rate relief and incentives to get consumers to invest in energy-saving lightbulbs and the like.

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