House committee sends telecommunications bill to chamber for floor vote despite speaker's opposition

02/05/2015 11:22 AM

FRANKFORT — A bill deregulating landline telephone service cleared the House Economic Development Committee on a 15-1 vote Thursday.

House Bill 152, sponsored by Rep. Rick Rand, is the latest version of the so-called “AT&T bill” given the company’s vocal support for the topic in recent legislative sessions. Similar pieces of legislation have failed to pass the Democrat-led House largely due to concerns of how such bills would affect rural Kentuckians.

Some of those misgivings sprang up again as the legislative panel considered HB 152. Only Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, voted against the bill, although some lawmakers said they may change their vote once HB 152 reaches the House floor.

But for Rand, D-Bedford, the matter has reached a tipping point. He said HB 152 would allow the state to make progress in education, business and overall growth.

“As a realtor, madam chair, in a rural area, it used to be people’d say how are the schools here. That was the main question,” Rand said in committee testimony. “Now they ask how are the schools and can I get broadband? Is it available to me in your rural area? That’s an important thing because so many people now don’t operate in storefronts.”

The bill would allow telephone providers like AT&T and Windstream to stop offering basic landline service in areas with more than 15,000 housing units while still carrying the service in rural areas with less than 15,000 homes.

Providers must replace landline phones with either Internet- or wireless-backed voice service, and those in rural areas can move to more advanced technology with the option of reverting back to landline service within 30 days of the switch, according to HB 152.

Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky, said the law change would allow his company to invest in broadband access rather than maintaining landlines, and the bill contains protections for both rural and urban phone users.

Jim Evans, superintendent of the Lee County School District, said passing the bill would not only have a profound impact on schools, but also the surrounding communities. His district is one of a few across the country participating in Microsoft’s Teaching Education and Literacy in Schools.

“I know small business owners who need expanded broadband connectivity,” he said. “I know students who graduate and want to become entrepreneurs using advanced broadband technology. I know students who are lost considering dropping out, and with TEALS in Lee County, we’ve been able to provide an option for those kids to stay in school and succeed in life.”

But Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said the services proposed by telecommunications providers aren’t are reliable as landline phones, and those who move to rural areas may be out of luck if they want landline services.

What’s more, some rely on landlines for their home security systems or medial emergency services, he said.

“We are indeed in a time of transition, members of the committee, and it’s, I think, the obligation of all of us to assure that there is no slippage, that there is no harm that occurs for those significant number of Kentuckians who still rely on reliable landline service as their lifeline, to assure that the home alarms that are installed in our homes and our businesses continue to function,” FitzGerald said.

Rand acknowledged concerns with the legislation, but he expects HB 152 will pass if it comes to a floor vote in the House. AT&T representatives wanted the House to act on the deregulation bill first this session, Rand said of his conversations with officials during the interim.

“I feel very confident if we’re able to get it up on the floor that we’ll have more than enough votes to pass it,” he said.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo gave HB 152 “fairly good” chances of passing s floor vote, but he won’t support the bill.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said he promised proponents of the issue a floor vote “if a majority of the caucus and the majority of members wanted to vote on it,” saying one person should not hinder the will of the chamber.

“The bill came out of a properly assigned committee, so we’re going to have a vote on it,” he said.

Stumbo said his concerns with the bill center on his general opposition to “deregulation of an industry that built itself through government-granted monopolies.”

“That’s all this is about, getting rid of the maintenance on the landlines,” he said. “That’s primarily what this is about, so they’re going to put people out of work, they’re going to put (Communications Workers of America) employees out of work.

“It’s not that big of a cost item to a company that made the, I don’t even remember what their profits were last year, but it’s tremendous profits. They’re not struggling by any stretch of the imagination. I just find it egregious.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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