'Phone wars' delay Senate adjournment

Legislature enters Day 5 of special session

Posted: Tuesday, May 21, 2002

The Legislature dragged into the fifth day of a special session today because of Senate inaction on a bill extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

Several representatives made it clear that they'd like to reach out and touch Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican. 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. He 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.

The Legislature acted Monday on veterans legislation sought by Knowles, putting the governor's veterans advisory council into statute and officially adding veterans to the formal title of the Pioneers' Home nursing and assisted-living facilities.

Although Democrats complained about some of the changes made by the House to the Pioneers' and Veterans' Home bill, the legislation satisfied part of the governor's proclamation for another special session to be held upon adjournment of the one called by lawmakers last week.

But Knowles issued an amended proclamation Monday night that maintains the call for a special session if the Legislature doesn't act on the RCA bill.

Taylor held a brief Judiciary Committee meeting Monday night in which the House bill was amended to add the three-month extension and to create a panel of seven legislators to do a study on RCA by Feb. 1. The amended bill also clarifies that the 15-month "wind down," which would begin July 1, wouldn't compromise the agency's authority to take on new cases and new complaints.

"It's a bad bill," said Mike Abbott, the governor's legislative director.

"It has competing objectives," said Reed Stoops, a lobbyist for GCI, saying the wind-down and the authority to handle new cases are incompatible.

James said the House wants at least a two-year extension but would settle for one.

One Senate proposal was for nine months. House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, said the House wouldn't accept that.

If the Senate doesn't present an acceptable compromise in time for lawmakers to leave town by 5 p.m. today, the House is adjourning nonetheless, Porter said last night. It wasn't clear whether that would run afoul of the governor's proclamation.

Taylor remained defiant just after midnight, saying the House is welcome to adjourn.

"I assume then the governor calls us back in and we debate the very same issue," he told reporters. "Maybe eventually the truth will come out and the people of Alaska will have an opportunity to see that, instead of just crammed down in the middle of the night."

The Senate needs at least to defeat the House proposal on the floor, or pass an alternative, said Bob King, press secretary for Knowles. "We would accept that the Senate has taken action and snubbed their nose at the public."

Taylor repeatedly has referred to a U.S. Justice Department investigation of GCI in an Oregon case. 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, saying he had talked with a Justice official earlier Monday. Taylor didn't elaborate.

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.

Also hanging as of this morning 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.

Mulder said a special session on subsistence later this summer is likely.

But 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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