Empire editorial: Welcome back, legislators!

Posted: Sunday, June 23, 2002

Juneau is always happy to put out the welcome mat for returning legislators.

With summer solstice upon us, Juneau has even turned on the lights for you this time around. This extra visit to Juneau should have been unnecessary, but we hope you enjoy your stay, nonetheless.

Lawmakers have returned to decide the disposition of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA), the body that provides oversight for rates charged by public utilities, including electricity, natural gas, water, sewer services, pipelines and telecommunications.

The session will also consider an appropriation to place additional veterans in Pioneers' Homes.

At the end of the overlong regular session, the Senate had worked out a one-year extension and oversight study for the RCA to avoid an automatic sunsetting of regulatory operations.

Throughout the regular session, Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor steadfastly stood in the way of settling the fate of the RCA by refusing to hold hearings on pending bills dealing with the commission's future.

At the end of the session, Taylor acquiesced to a 3-month extension of the RCA's authority, which would have sunsetted the agency on Sept. 30, 2002.

That idea was shot down because it wasn't enough time to accomplish what is needed to avoid dismantling of the agency.

Gov. Knowles called the June 24 session when it became obvious that a compromise for an extension of the RCA's authority had come to loggerheads.

The Senate's plan to allow a limited extension of a year would have been a good compromise, buying enough time for more thorough study and hearings running into the next regular session. Too, the added cushion of time is needed to drill past the political influences that keep pushing the issue off track.

At the heart of the controversy is a battle for market share between the state's two dominant phone companies. GCI, helped by favorable rulings from the commission, has entered into local phone markets previously controlled by ACS.

ACS claims that it's not being paid enough by GCI to cover its cost for use of its existing infrastructure.

Federal guidelines under deregulation mandate that companies such as ACS that own telecommunication infrastructure must share their lines and switching equipment with competitors.

GCI officials fear that unless RCA can field complaints, consumers may encounter delays with interconnections.

Senator Taylor's ties with ACS have also raised concerns about his motives.

The four days of hearings held this past week on the RCA have effectively laid out the landscape as it relates to the key questions our legislators must consider this week.

Hopefully, an agreement can be quickly forged on a limited extension of the RCA's authority and our legislators can return home to enjoy the rest of the summer with their families.

Don Smith



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