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Taylor backs off on new commission

Revised RCA bill zeroes in on ethics

Posted: Wednesday, June 26, 2002

For about five hours today, Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor had a

monkeywrench firmly inserted into the gears of the special legislative

session.

Taylor proposed a new Telecommunications Commission of Alaska to handle

"phone wars" cases, removing those matters from the jurisdiction of the

controversial Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

That way, current RCA commissioners wouldn't oversee rates and

interconnections between ACS and GCI, fierce competitors in local telephone

service.

But the Knowles administration, House Republican leaders and GCI immediately

objected to the idea. When Taylor emerged from a closed-door Senate

Republican caucus, the Telecommunications Commission was removed from the

RCA bill.

"His caucus obviously rejected the new Telecommunications Commission,"

observed Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, an Anchorage Democrat. Senate

President Rick Halford, a Chugiak Republican, wouldn't comment.

During the subsequent Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Dave Donley, an

Anchorage Republican, said the idea of a second commission is too much to

consider during a special session.

"I'm not convinced that the special session is the time to attempt this big

step," Donley said. Taylor didn't fight the move to delete it.

But Donley also added that idea to the agenda of a task force that would

study the structure and procedures of the RCA. The seven-member group would

report to the Legislature on Jan. 30, 2003, about the same time that a

telecommunications study being done for the Department of Administration

should be finished, Taylor said.

The bill now contains a one-year extension of the RCA, which now is

scheduled to go into a one-year wind-down on Monday. Under the bill, the

wind-down would begin July 1, 2003, instead, if the commission isn't

reauthorized again.

The House has passed a two-year extension by a margin of 34-4.

A vote of the full Senate is expected tonight.

It's unclear whether the vote will be on the House bill as passed there or

as amended by Taylor's committee.

An extension of the RCA "is not a foregone conclusion if there's no give and

take on what the details are," Halford said.

Any difference between House and Senate versions would have to be resolved

in a conference committee, potentially lengthening a session that

legislators had hoped to conclude by Thursday.

Gov. Tony Knowles called this week's special session to have the RCA

extended.

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.

Knowles noted today, though, that his administration in December signed a

five-year, $92 million contract with ACS to provide all state

telecommunications services. GCI was one of the losing bidders.

"There's nothing in the record" to suggest bias against any company by the

administration or the RCA, the governor said.

But the Senate Judiciary bill 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. Commissioners wouldn't be allowed to

decide cases if there was even circumstantial evidence of such a

communication.

Taylor and other Republicans on the committee have grilled RCA Chairwoman

Nan Thompson and GCI Vice President Dana Tindall about a trip Thompson once

took to GCI's private lodge near Dillingham. Thompson and Tindall testified

that the get-together, originally 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.

Knowles, who said he has been to the lodge half a dozen times, noted that

Stevens and fellow Republican U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski have been guests

there, as well. Taylor is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Murkowski is the heavy favorite to be the Republican nominee for governor.

In other special session developments, Senate Finance Co-Chairman Pete Kelly said late this afternoon that there will be no action on the governor's request for $2.6 million in additional funding for the Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes.

It's premature to take that up, said Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican. The Legislature already has commissioned a study on veterans' needs for assisted living, and relevant actions by the federal government are pending, he said.

Knowles still isn't saying what he'll do if the veterans funding isn't passed.

"It would not be acceptable to have neither body even discuss the issue," he said. "The Legislature owes at least a vote in each body."

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



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