When legislators approved a controversial utilities bill last month, they did so knowing they'd have some time to fiddle with it before it goes into effect in the summer of 2001.

Let the fiddling begin.

The Public Utilities and Technology interim committee will hold its first meeting Wednesday to discuss HB320, a bill passed last month that changes the way the state regulates public utilities.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas, said during the legislative session that HB320 would "streamline" the state's regulatory process. The current process is too adversarial, Ure told fellow lawmakers, and jeopardizes the financial well-being of the state's vital utilities.

A slim majority of lawmakers sided with Ure, over consumer groups' objections that the bill would further empower monopoly utilities over ratepayers and increase the chance for higher natural gas, electricity and telephone bills.

Wednesday, lawmakers, utility companies and consumer groups will re-open that discussion.

Questar spokesman Chad Jones said the company does not expect the same type of bare-fisted brawl it found itself in during the Legislature. As far as Questar is concerned, the battle was won during the session; the interim largely will be an educational period.

"We don't expect (the interim meetings) to be acrimonious, because it's informational on our part," Jones said. "Our hope is that everyone leaves the meetings with a clearer idea of what the law does and that the legislators are assured they did the right thing in passing it, because it is law."

House Minority Whip Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said the interim presents an opportunity to "seriously review what has happened, under terrible circumstances, I believe, during the session.

"My objection to HB320 was that it was done with virtually no discussion and very little thought and will have adverse consequences for the small consumer in Utah," said Becker, who serves on the committee. "I hope that during the interim we will take the time to look at the issue with fresh eyes."

Still, Becker said he has been unpleasantly surprised before and might be again. "I was surprised the bill sailed through with so little thought or consideration. I hope that during this interim that kind of consideration will be given, for the benefit of all Utahns. But I really don't know what to expect."

Neither do consumer groups.

"Fine-tuning a bad bill won't be good enough" for Roger Ball, administrative secretary for the Committee of Consumer Services, who called for a thorough review of the state's regulatory mechanism.

But will the interim committee be willing to examine a complicated 40-page bill from the top?

"I hope that people will be willing to be open-minded enough to examine the regulatory process in its entirety in an effort to identify whatever problems there might be, and improve the whole thing," Ball said. "I hope nothing about HB320 will be sacrosanct."

Battle-weary and disillusioned, Crossroads Urban Center utility analyst Jeff Fox questioned whether it is realistic for consumer advocates to go up against Questar and other utilities again, expecting to make meaningful changes.

"Even if we were able to re-write the bill entirely during the interim and make a decent bill, which a lot of people doubt, there's no way we're going to get anything good through the Legislature," Fox said. "The utilities will simply stop us."

The Public Utilities and Technology interim committee will meet at 2 p.m. on Wednesday in Room 223 of the State Capitol building.


You can reach Jenifer K. Nii by e-mail at jnii@desnews.com