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Controversial utilities bill passes

Sen. Leonard Blackham used his Senate majority whip, lashing out at consumer groups gathered in opposition to a controversial utilities bill that eliminates the state's Committee of Consumer Services.

The Senate passed HB320 on Wednesday on a 16-12 vote, sending it to the governor to be signed into law. Blackham, R-Moroni, carried the bill in the Senate and applauded sponsor David Ure, R-Kamas, for his efforts to streamline government.

At the same time, Blackham made clear his irritation with consumer advocates who claim the bill would strip ratepayers of any voice before the Public Service Commission, the state's utilities regulatory agency.

"It just bugs the heck out of me," Blackham said, "those consumer groups who say they are the advocate of the people. I feel like I am the advocate of the consumer. . . . I am offended by those groups who think I am not protecting those people who are not meeting the income demands in their lives."

Blackham asserted the bill protects consumers and shores up vital utility companies for the long run, a sentiment echoed by Questar Corp., the state's primary natural gas supplier and backer of the bill.

Company spokesman Chad Jones said Questar is "pleased the Legislature saw through the smokescreen and passed what will be for Utah a good bill. It takes courage to stand up to entrenched bureaucracies."

But Sen. Ed Mayne, D-West Valley City, said passing HB320 would weight the system in favor of big utilities and "sends a terrible, terrible, terrible message for the state of Utah."

"For us to be able to stand here and support this legislation and say it isn't anti-consumer is really hypocritical," Mayne said.

Consumer advocates said they felt betrayed by their legislators.

"This is a sad, sad day for the state of Utah," said longtime advocate Claire Geddes. "On the majority, the Legislature has not supported the consumer this session."

Roger Ball, administrative secretary for the consumer committee eliminated by HB320, said legislators used the bill to strike back at vocal consumer groups.

"I believe that the Committee of Consumer Services has been made the scapegoat for those feelings," Ball said.

If signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt, HB320 will take effect in July 2001 and is expected to be a focus of the interim legislative session.

On a separate vote, the Senate gave final approval to HB338, which sponsor Susan Koehn, R-Woods Cross, said would smooth the way for telecommunication industry deregulation set into motion in the 1995 session. Consumer groups also opposed that bill, saying it would strengthen US WEST's monopoly in Utah and result in higher telecommunication bills for its customers.