As Alaska's lawmakers enter the final days of the session, the disposition of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska remains undecided.
The RCA was formed in 1999 to replace the dissolved Alaska Public Utilities Commission. In an ideal world regulatory agencies operate outside the realm of partisan politics. The RCA's job is to provide oversight for rates charged by public utilities, including electricity, natural gas, water, sewer and pipelines and telecommunications.
If the Legislature fails to reauthorize the RCA this year, the agency will automatically be sunsetted and go into a one-year wind-down period. During this time the RCA will be reduced to ruling only on existing cases, until it is completely phased out.
With no regulatory oversight, consumers would lose a level of protection. Most utilities want and support the RCA because the agency's mission is to ensure a level playing field and an avenue for consumers to seek relief.
The two reauthorization bills have been collecting dust in Wrangell Sen. Robin Taylor's Judiciary Committee and have yet to see the light of a hearing. The House version of a reauthorization bill to extend the agency's life to 2006 passed in April on a 35-1 vote. The Senate renewal measure has been sitting idle since February.
It is unclear why Sen. Taylor has chosen not to act on this important question. When asked to explain his reasons for sitting on the decision he has been evasive.
It is speculated that intense competition in the telecommunications arena may have something to do with the gridlock.
The state's two main telecommunication companies, Alaska Communication Systems and General Communication Inc., are pitted in a competitive battle for local phone service. Deregulation has allowed GCI to enter into the local telephone market in Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Alaska regulations state that ACS must lease use of its local phone lines to its competitors at a fixed rate determined by the RCA. ACS claims that it is being forced to lease use of its lines to its competitor at rates below its costs. Officials at GCI feel that ACS is being less than forthcoming in accommodating the transference of new customers to GCI's services.
This past week Gov. Knowles sent a letter urging Sen. Taylor to hold a public meeting on the matter or suffer another of the governor's dreaded special sessions.
The co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, Rep. Eldon Mulder, stated on the House floor this past week that it would be "dangerous" not to reauthorize the commission, and warned of "particularly disastrous consequences for rural telephone service."
Alaska is still very much in the formative stages of building its infrastructure. Consumers cannot afford to weather a year without the protection provided by the RCA. If internal problems with the RCA arise, there are avenues to deal with them. There is still time for the Legislature to act before the close of the session.