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BIG MONEY IS REPEALING CONTROL ON UTILITIES

Democrat Jerry Brown, the former governor of California and erstwhile presidential candidate, never really deserved the sobriquet "Moonbeam."

Still, he is much more of a political philosopher than anything, and usually has something useful to say.

The other day he warned that the country doesn't have a two-party political system.

We have "a merging of political parties under the pressure of big money," Brown said.

There is no better example of this trend than the bill that Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., and President Clinton are offering up for a vote in about a month.

D'Amato's bill affects every person who uses electric power. It affects every householder, every business, every farm, every office.

Does that leave out anybody but the Montana Freemen?

The bill throws out a New Deal law that makes it virtually impossible for anybody to create huge, unregulated regional or national trusts that own and manipulate the electric-power business.

These trusts, a product of the last throes of the Robber Barons, sucked the financial lifeblood out of farmers and small businesses, bought state governments and helped foster the great stock-market crash of 1929.

Repeal of these protections would allow huge combines to buy up regional electric-utility companies, engage in price-gouging and slosh ratepayers' funds from one business to another, cross-country. It would increase incentives to buy power generated by dirty plants.

Like the 1980s movement to throw out the laws governing the savings-bank industry, this bill bears two labels that ought to make everybody nervous. It is about "deregulation." It is "bipartisan."

For example, an original co-sponsor is Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, the former general chairman of the National Democratic Committee. Under Dodd, the DNC flouted every campaign law on the books.

You wouldn't know Dodd's shady side. The Washington press establishment gives him a free ride because he smiles easily, holds his liquor and talks like a liberal Democrat to shock-jock Don Imus.

Dodd last year got even more money than D'Amato did from the securities and investment businesses that would profit from creation of mega-utilities after this legislation passes.

Western New York by now ought to have a jaundice about the blandishments of "deregulation, bipartisan style."

Republican President Ronald Reagan deregulated the airlines, and a Democratic House went along with it. Ditto for the deregulation of the savings banks, and the savings-and-loan industry. Big corporate money was the grease behind this interparty amity.

The results for Western New York have been rapacious air fares and the loss of the region's savings banks.

For Buffalo, the savings scandal closed three big venerable institutions and cost us three local corporate headquarters, with their law firms. It threw thousands of people out of work and frustrated everybody's hopes for a revival of Buffalo's central business district.

Still, the savings and airline bipartisan deregulation binges affected only sectors of the economy.

D'Amato's bill, repealing the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act, would ultimately affect everybody -- all users of electric power.

Nobody with any clout here is raising a peep about this measure. And that is because the drive to repeal the utility act has created one of the biggest financial feeding troughs for 1998 congressional campaigns.

In fairness, the legislation ought to be called D'Amato-Dodd.

A coalition of Ralph Nader organizations ought to be thanked for calling attention to the bill at a news conference. The trouble is that the event seemed like a liberal piling on of D'Amato in an election year because they failed to point out that icons of the left like Dodd, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., were just as much to blame.

The groups also claimed they "didn't know" Clinton's position on the repeal of the utility act. The fact is Clinton was readying his own version of the D'Amato-Dodd ripper bill.

Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder said Clinton's version "is the sport-utility model" of the electric restructuring debate. He said, "It claims to offer consumer protection, but it increases energy consumption and air pollution."

Clinton's version of D'Amato-Dodd would force "families and small businesses to pay for utilities' mistakes," said Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council. "It is unfair and bad policy."

The Clinton-Gore campaign got $504,000 in Wall Street contributions in 1995-96, not counting soft-money gifts.

D'Amato claims repealing the utility act is necessary to assure that consumers get the full benefits of state deregulation of electricity rates and to enhance consumer protection. Yes, and the check is in the mail.

The legislation assumes that there was no stock-market crash, that there was no price manipulation by the trusts in the old days and that the 1998 model of the corporate mogul is kinder and gentler.

There couldn't be a better time to slip this bill through -- with everybody breathlessly awaiting the latest news about Monica Lewinsky.

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