Saturday, February 16, 2013

Telecommunications deregulation bill gains first-round approval in Kansas House

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

A bill that supporters said Friday would continue the deregulation of telecommunication companies in Kansas sailed through initial passage in the House with bi-partisan support.

House Bill 2201 advanced on a voice vote and will be considered for a final vote on Monday.

During the House Republican caucus meeting, Rep. Joe Seiwert, R-Pretty Prairie, chair of the House Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, urged his colleagues to support the measure.

"This was an industry bill that they all worked very hard" to put together, Seiwert said.

The Republican bill brief said the measure was supported by a coalition of telecommunication companies "which puts legislators in an easier position of not having to `choose between friends.'"

Later, on the floor of the House, Rep. Annie Kuether of Topeka, who is the ranking Democrat on the Utilities and Telecommunications committee, also urged passage of the bill which was sought by AT&T and other companies. The measure would reduce funding requirements of the Kansas Universal Service Fund, thus reducing consumer telephone bills.

But the bill was opposed by David Springe, consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board.

Under the bill, the state's utility regulatory board, the Kansas Corporation Commission, no longer would be able to assist telecommunication customers when their phone service quality is unacceptable, Springe said.

Telecommunication companies would no longer be required to participate in the Kansas Lifeline Service Program, which provides discounts for basic telephone service for low-income Kansans.

"Ultimately, the changes proposed in this bill will disproportionately impact the more rural areas of Kansas, result in less service, potentially higher rates, potentially less Lifeline services and fewer consumer protections," Springe said.

Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said, "We are not killing Lifeline. We are just not mandating it."