With less than an hour left in this year's legislative session, Senate lawmakers decided not to pull the plug on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and instead gave the agency four more years.
Up until then, it appeared the agency would be allowed to go out of business. The RCA regulates 300 utilities in Alaska, from the trans-Alaska oil pipeline to local garbage haulers.
The passage of House Bill 111 extends the RCA until 2007. The bill also requires the agency to review its procedures and come up with ways to improve by Nov. 15.
The Senate did not vote on House Bill 206, a far more complicated bill that would have required the RCA to make changes in how it sets rates and determines costs in competitive phone markets.
RCA Chairman Dave Harbour had said earlier in the day if the extension was not granted, the RCA would have to be dismantled in the coming year. The RCA was to begin winding down July 1.
Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who worked on both pieces of legislation but favored HB 111, said passage of the bill is good for Alaska consumers.
"I think we need a consumer protection agency so I'm glad we didn't let the RCA lapse," he said.
The commission is in the middle of an ongoing fight between the state's two largest phone companies, Alaska Communications Systems Inc. and General Communications Inc.
ACS wants the RCA phased out, arguing that its regulatory decisions have placed the company at an unfair disadvantage competing against GCI.
ACS has long complained that it loses money leasing lines to GCI under rates set by the RCA. GCI has said ACS's numbers aren't accurate and RCA has set fair rates.
ACS, which has about 300,000 local access lines statewide, owns the part of the line that brings service into homes and businesses. Under federal law designed to promote competition, ACS has to allow other companies access to those lines.
Dana Tindall, senior vice president of legal affairs for GCI, said the four-year extension will give the RCA the stability it needs to do its job.
"The ax has been lifted. They have been vindicated and validated," she said.
GCI has no critical issues before the commission, she said, but is involved in two proceedings over the price for leasing ACS equipment in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
Harbour said all 50 states have a regulatory commission, not only to execute federal regulatory laws at the state level but "to perform detailed rate regulations work that the Legislature does not have the time nor the expertise to accomplish."
Alaska has had a utilities regulatory agency since statehood. The Public Services Commission operated from 1959 to 1972, then came the Alaska Public Utilities Commission from 1972 to 1999, when the agency was reorganized and became the RCA.
Harbour said if the agency was forced to wind down it would lose valuable people through attrition in the coming year due to the uncertainty. And he said the agency would have to be selective in what work it accepts so it doesn't leave a lot hanging at the July 1, 2004, deadline.
"Alaska must have a regulatory agency," Harbour said.
GCI wanted the agency extended for several more years, as did Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, favored a simple extension of the agency. Speaker of the House Pete Kott, an Eagle River Republican, said some members favored House Bill 206 because they didn't want another repeat of the "phone wars" that for years has come before the Legislature.
"Nothing has changed. We see the same staff ... same complaints," Kott said.
Therriault blamed the RCA problems this session on the House. He said lawmakers took too long to get two RCA bills to the Senate for consideration. He also said both Republicans and Democrats were split on the issue.
"It was just too much to get through," Therriault said.
Murkowski had asked lawmakers to give the agency four more years, saying that three of the five RCA commissioners are new members he's appointed.