Special session: Taylor proposes new commission for 'phone wars'

Telecommunications issues would be taken from Regulatory Commission of Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

In a surprise move, Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor this morning proposed a new Telecommunications Commission of Alaska to handle "phone wars" cases.

Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, spent all night with a bill drafter to find a way to remove the Regulatory Commission of Alaska from overseeing rates and interconnections between ACS and GCI, fierce competitors in local telephone service.

Gov. Tony Knowles called this week's special legislative session to have the RCA extended. Without an extension, the commission on Monday would begin a one-year "wind-down" leading to its termination. The House voted 34-4 Tuesday for a two-year extension.

ACS, which has lost its former monopolies in Juneau and Fairbanks due to RCA decisions, has come out in favor of the wind-down. GCI strongly supports an extension.

Based on campaign contributions, Taylor is seen as aligned with ACS. He says Knowles and members of the House leadership are "bought and paid for" by GCI.

The Senate Judiciary bill, still awaiting a committee vote late this morning, would extend the RCA by one year but remove much of its work, leaving it with oversight of public utilities providing electricity, water and sewer, garbage collection and pipelines. Taylor said the pipeline component could be a major issue for the commission if plans proceed to move North Slope natural gas to market.

As it is, "This commission takes too long to make a decision," he said. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

The bill also would impose tight restrictions on "ex parte" or non-official communications occurring between commissioners and utility executives, in what Taylor says is an attempt to avoid the appearance of favoritism toward particular companies.

He and other Republicans on the committee have grilled RCA Chairwoman Nan Thompson and GCI Vice President Dana Tindall about a trip Thompson took to GCI's private lodge near Dillingham. Thompson and Tindall testified the get-together, intended to be a joint briefing of an aide to U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, did not include discussion of any open cases before the RCA.

Tindall called Taylor's new bill "totally ridiculous," noting that he hadn't held a Judiciary Committee hearing on the RCA during this year's regular session of the Legislature. Taylor's goal is simply to get new commissioners considering ACS cases, she said.

Support for Taylor's approach in the Senate is unclear, but House approval looks unlikely.

"Unacceptable," said House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican. "We're going to go to caucus this afternoon, but I would be amazed if there would be anybody in our caucus that would find it acceptable."

David Ramseur, chief of staff to Knowles, called the Judiciary bill a "non-starter."

"These are the guys who want to cut government; now they're creating an entirely new bureaucracy," Ramseur said. "Presumably they would pass the bill on to consumers."

In other special session business, the Republican majority overturned the governor's veto of a campaign finance bill.

The 41-16 party-line vote of the Legislature enacted a bill that will regulate soft-money "issue advertisements" that explicitly target specific candidates. The governor said it didn't go far enough in stemming "soft money" attacks.

Knowles and Democrats have been outraged by television ads from a Virginia group called Americans for Job Security that say the Knowles-Ulmer administration is responsible for economic stagnation in Alaska. Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer is the leading Democratic candidate for governor this year.

"These ads are not subject to regulation under current law," emphasized Sen. Gene Therriault, a North Pole Republican who worked on the bill.

Therriault said the bill is a reaction to court cases and is constructed cautiously to avoid constitutional issues that courts might be looking at. "We're talking about freedom of speech here."

But Rep. John Davies, a Fairbanks Democrat, said that groups can speak all they want but should have to say whose money enabled them to do so. Otherwise, the campaign money "becomes laundered, in effect," Davies said.

Knowles issued an angry statement following the override.

"This action comes as little surprise as the Republican-backed, mis-named 'Americans for Job Security' initiated its third round of negative attack ads in the Alaska media," he said. "The Republican super-majority in the Legislature predictably flexed its muscle to open wide the floodgates of soft money." Citizens will turn to the initiative and referendum process in response to "this underhanded, mudslinging, machine politics," Knowles predicted.

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