Legislature finally adjourns

RCA bill left hanging for June 24 special session; subsistence in limbo

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Weary legislators finally closed out a five-day special session early this evening after failing to find compromise on a bill extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The House adjourned the second special session of the 22nd Legislature just after 5 p.m., with the Senate following within an hour. That followed two consecutive days in which private negotiations continued until past midnight, with no resolution.

It was an anticlimactic conclusion, with most of the major work of the session - including the biggest school construction package in two decades - completed over the weekend.

Legislators will be back in a month, though, to deal with the issue they left hanging.

Several representatives made it clear that they'd like to reach out and touch Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican who almost single-handedly dragged the session out at least an additional day.

By blocking the RCA bill, Taylor has added fuel to the "phone wars" waged periodically at the Capitol between Alaska Communications Systems and General Communications Inc.

"Nobody wants to talk to him," House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican, told reporters just after midnight today.

"One or two people are making us all look bad," said House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican.

Taylor, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has agreed to only a three-month extension of the RCA's life, which would "sunset" the agency on Sept. 30, 2003. As it stands, a one-year "wind down" of the agency would begin in six weeks, with the possibility that staffers would start looking for work and diminish the ability of the RCA to respond to complaints.

Taylor has received campaign financing through ACS executives and lobbyists, while other legislators and Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles have been supported by GCI.

The House, with just one dissent, approved a four-year extension for RCA, only to see Taylor try to bottle the legislation up in his committee and cast aspersions on the business practices of GCI.

GCI, thanks to rulings by the commission, has broken into local phone markets previously monopolized by ACS, including Juneau. ACS contends that it's not being fairly compensated for use of its existing infrastructure. GCI officials say they're worried that with RCA in a wind down, there will be no one "to call balls and strikes" on how interconnections are proceeding.

Knowles has called a special session for June 24 to take up the RCA issue. That overrode his previous plan for a special session to commence upon adjournment of the one that was called by lawmakers Thursday.

Mulder said that the House majority's position is reverting to a four-year extension of RCA, rather than the one-year extension members offered as a compromise Monday night.

"I think it's totally unreasonable for Sen. Taylor to try to defend one company, one entity, to hold up this process," Mulder said. "That's not excusable."

Public pressure could build in the next month, as utility companies and consumers contact legislators, he said.

The failure to act is "better than a bad bill," said GCI Vice President Dana Tindall, one of three company executives who flew down from Anchorage to see the conclusion to the session.

Taylor remained defiant tonight. He said he will ask the Judiciary Committee and Senate President Rick Halford for subpoena powers to find out "the truth" about GCI. He also has written to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting the agency to "expand its current investigation of General Communications, Inc. to include the reasons for the tremendous political pressure being brought to bear on the Alaska state Legislature" to continue RCA.

Taylor repeatedly has called attention to the Justice investigation of GCI activity in Oregon.

However, when pressed, Taylor acknowledged the case is a bankruptcy in which the question is whether anti-trust laws should bar GCI from buying an underseas fiber optic system.

"But it reaches further than that," Taylor alleged, claiming to have spoken with Justice officials.

A Justice official in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with the case declined to discuss it with the Empire this morning, saying that is the department's policy with all ongoing investigations.

Taylor said he believes there is an additional matter under investigation by Justice, beyond the bankruptcy case, although he stressed that officials in D.C. didn't tell him that.

"How could it be an ongoing investigation if all those issues are concluded?" he said. "I was very specific when I asked them, 'Have you concluded this?' ... All I know is there is an ongoing investigation. ... And whatever their ongoing investigation is, I've asked that they expand it and take a look at the things being done in these halls."

Taylor said that ACS is not the only company concerned with the performance of the RCA. But many others are reluctant to speak at the same time as they have cases pending before the commission, he said.

A board member of Chugach Electric, former Lt. Gov. H.A. "Red" Boucher, was at the Capitol this week to express concern about untimely decisions by RCA.

"Chugach Electric's ability to formulate a timely budget for its 60,000 owners has been seriously impaired by the lack of timely decisions on the rate cases that we have brought before them," Boucher said in a letter to Taylor.

However, Boucher also told the Empire that he wants the commission extended.

Taylor has said extension of RCA should wait until completion of a $300,000 state telecommunications study that's pending. However, the state's document requesting proposals doesn't mention RCA.

Reed Stoops, a GCI lobbyist, said the funding was inserted quietly into a bill last year with scant committee discussion. Senate President Halford, who is aligned with ACS, later wrote to Administration Commissioner Jim Duncan asking that the money be used for a study of telecommunications with an eye to "de-emphasizing government involvement in markets."

Dark humor surfaced throughout the Capitol Monday and today as negotiations on ending the impasse proceeded glacially behind closed doors.

Mulder's packing boxes included stickers with a variety of quotes, from The Doors' "This is the end" to Revelation 6:7 to artist Leonardo da Vinci: "I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have."

An aide to Rep. Pete Kott handed passersby a diagram of Dante's "Inferno," with the subtitle: "Transition to Lower Hell - The Realm of Violence and Fraud."

Also left in the lurch today was the subsistence issue. The House and Senate have held preliminary committee hearings on various proposals for a constitutional amendment to establish either a rural or local priority for traditional hunting and fishing rights.

Before Knowles calls a special session, King said the Senate first will have to demonstrate it has the 14 votes necessary to pass a constitutional amendment. Senators failed to engage in the administration's attempt to broaden the discussion of the issue, including holding a forum with religious leaders.

"Given that, why should we give them the opportunity to bail themselves out?" King asked.

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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