House energizes debate over utility commission

Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

The state House is trying a traditional session-end tactic to extend the life of the state agency that regulates utilities and telephone companies.

A bill to reauthorize the Regulatory Commission of Alaska until 2006 has been stuck in a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, since April.

The House Rules Committee on Saturday attached the measure to an unrelated bill effectively sidestepping Taylor's committee. The measure, Senate Bill 115, was given approval by the House on Sunday, with terms shortening the sunset clause of the RCA from 2006 to 2004 and making reauthorization of the commission contingent on a statewide study of the telecommunications industry.

The RCA has allowed the telephone company General Communication Inc. to expand its market to Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks, encouraging competition in a field once dominated by Alaska Communications Systems. GCI has offered limited telephone service in Juneau since February.

Dana Tindall, senior vice president for GCI, said the amendment requiring the study was orchestrated by ACS to undo the RCA.

"The RCA won't be there to call balls and strikes to make sure that competition goes smoothly in Juneau," Tindall said.

ACS officials could not be reached for comment by the Empire's deadline today.

Attaching the commission extension to a Senate bill, often used at the end of a legislative session, could set up a fight with Taylor and other key Republicans opposed to such a plan. Taylor said he is opposed to the House action and will fight it. He accused Gov. Tony Knowles of working to engineer the amendment that would bring the matter for a vote in the Senate.

The commission's reauthorization bill has been hampered by a dispute with ACS. ACS president Wes Carson has said the company has problems with rulings in which the RCA refused to allow ACS to charge its competitors higher prices for access to its lines.

Commission decisions have unfairly favored ACS' main competitor in the local phone market, GCI, and the Legislature should wait until a state-funded study of the telecommunications industry is completed before acting, Carson said.

Unless the Legislature reauthorizes it this year, the agency will enter a one-year shutdown beginning July 1.

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