RCA bill scrapes through in final hours

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2003

JUNEAU - In the end, lawmakers agreed Alaska must have an agency regulating the state's utilities, even if they don't agree with all the decisions.

With less than an hour left in the session Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill to extend the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for another four years.

Earlier in the day, it had appeared no agreement would be reached on extending the RCA and the agency would go into a one-year wind-down period before closing down entirely in July 2004.

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.

Senate President Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican, credited Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration with helping break the deadlock.

"I think what you saw on RCA is the administration weighed in with the companies and said ... 'Let's put the individual company bickering aside. Let's do what's right for the state of Alaska.'

"I do not believe either company really wanted to see the RCA go into a wind-down. That's not good in the capital markets that they exist in."

ACS long has complained 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.

In testimony before the Legislature this year, GCI favored a simple extension of the commission, provided for in House Bill 111.

ACS pushed a far more complicated measure, House Bill 106, that would have required the RCA to make changes in how it sets rates and determines costs in competitive phone markets.

Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Cowdery, who supported the ACS approach, was unwilling to let House Bill 111 go to the Senate floor for a vote without House Bill 106.

But Murkowski and Therriault insisted on a "clean" RCA bill.

GCI spokesman David Morris said he believes Murkowski's statements to that effect at a news conference Wednesday made a difference.

"The governor staying fast, saying four years and clean, is what got the bill through," Morris said.

GCI would have preferred to let the agency wind down, rather than accept the changes in House Bill 106, which the company said would hurt consumers as well as GCI, Morris said.

ACS spokeswoman Mary Ann Pease said her company wanted the RCA to continue, despite dissatisfaction with some of its rulings, and ultimately decided to support House Bill 111, even if it could not also get House Bill 106 passed.

"I think there was a consensus at the end: 'We're coming to the end here. Look what we have on the table,' " Pease said.

And, she said, debate on the bills gave legislators and some new Murkowski appointees to the RCA commission information on issues they had been unaware of.

"We basically have to give the RCA time to try and react to what they heard," Pease said.

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