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House OKs RCA compromise

Taylor still fighting extension; veterans funding in trouble

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2002

Robin Taylor, the combative Republican senator and lieutenant governor candidate from Wrangell, is in the eye of the special session storm at the Capitol.

During this morning's floor session, House Speaker Brian Porter, an Anchorage Republican, mistakenly referred to Rep. Richard Foster as "Rep. Taylor," amusing most people in the chamber.

"Thanks a lot," Foster, a Nome Democrat, responded with a laugh.

Porter acknowledged he had inadvertently "advised everyone what's on my mind."

A little later, the House voted 34-4 to approve a bill extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska for two years, a measure strongly opposed by Taylor.

Television camera crews staked out the hallway near the Senate chamber Monday to get comments from the legislator who is seen widely as the person most responsible for triggering the special session.

Taylor, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last month refused to act on a four-year extension approved by the House with just one dissenting vote. Lame-duck Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles called the special session to avert a one-year "wind-down" of the agency that would start Monday and lead to its expiration, unless the Legislature acts.

"The only difference between solving the RCA's problems today and solving them during the next legislative session is that Tony Knowles won't be here to protect a special interest group," Taylor told reporters.

Knowles has received campaign contributions from GCI executives, while Taylor has been supported by ACS, a rival in the so-called "phone wars" that have been the source of numerous RCA rulings.

Taylor says a pending telecommunications study should be completed before the RCA is reauthorized.

But Knowles said an independent regulatory commission is needed to protect consumers without the distraction of preparing to go out of business.

"Don't forget it's the consumers that are going to pay the price for the political manipulation that takes place here," the governor said during a news conference this morning.

The bill passed by the House today includes timelines for the commission to make decisions, creation of a committee to study possible reforms, and a requirement for monthly meetings involving the RCA, regulated utilities and the public.

"I would accept this compromise," Knowles said.

Simultaneously, Taylor's committee began its hearing with testimony critical of RCA, which the chairman called "one petty little agency."

The RCA has an "apparent reluctance to decide issues," said Bruce Davison, board chairman for Chugach Electric Association. That results in excessive paperwork and costs for utilities, he said.

Generally, though, the battle is between ACS and GCI, now competing for local telephone customers in Juneau.

"This commission is a good commission," Dana Tindall, senior vice president for GCI, told the House Finance Committee on Monday. "It is vastly superior to the former Alaska Public Utilities Commission."

But ACS President Wes Carson said more than 80 percent of RCA decisions involving the two companies have gone GCI's way, indicating bias. ACS is being forced to lease infrastructure to GCI below its actual cost, and thus is subsidizing its competitor, he said.

Carson called on RCA Chairwoman Nan Thompson not to partake in any future decisions involving ACS, and he expressed concern that the commission has retaliated against the company for its criticism of past decisions.

But Thompson told the committee she relies solely on the law and the case record.

"I don't have an agenda," Thompson said. "And I don't have biases for or against any particular company. I'm not the only commissioner, and I don't make decisions on my own."

On the second issue of the special session, funding for the Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes, the House Republican caucus met late this morning to decide whether to grant the governor's request for $2.6 million. The money would be used to fill as many as 100 vacant beds by hiring additional staff.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican, and State Affairs Chairman John Coghill, a North Pole Republican, said beforehand that it's unlikely the money will be appropriated. Coghill said there are too many unanswered questions concerning the availability of qualified staff to provide high-quality care in the assisted-living homes, and about federal rules and funding regarding veterans.

But there are 180 people on an active waiting list to get into the homes, said Jim Duncan, commissioner of administration.

"They will address the issue, as far as I'm concerned," Knowles said. He declined to say whether that was a threat to call another special session if legislators don't act. "This issue has been on the table for the Legislature for two years."

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



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