Lobbyists filled the chairs that line the walls of the House majority caucus room, surrounding the half-dozen legislators on three sides.
The legislators, a special subcommittee trying to hash out a telecommunications deregulation bill this week, repeatedly referred to the assembled lobbyists as “the interested parties” and “the players.”
But rather than accept legislation proposed by the various groups, the subcommittee decided to work on draft legislation prepared by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and allow the lobbyists to suggest amendments.
“We would far prefer that you enact the … (bill) we have prepared than this,” Idaho Telephone Association lobbyist Ken McClure told the lawmakers. “But we recognize that there are others in the room that disagree with that.”
Rep. Ron Crane, R-Caldwell, co-chairman of the subcommittee, said after the meeting that he thinks both the lawmakers and the PUC are representing the interests of the average telephone customer - the other big interested party.
“The legislators are representing constituents,” he said.
PUC Commissioner Marsha Smith said, “I didn’t see our role as to mediate among those providers. I saw our role as to ensure that the product that comes out is as good as possible for the customer.”
But even given that, customers may find the changes confusing, she said. Opening local phone service to competition will mean more choices.
“Sometimes, when there are more choices, it’s confusing.”
Lawmakers were quick to admit that they, too, are somewhat confused by the complicated questions they must address, which range from how costs of various phone services should be determined to depreciation rules.
Sen. John Hansen, R-Idaho Falls, the subcommittee’s other co-chairman, told the assembled lobbyists, “We’re looking for any suggestions that would benefit the subcommittee and yourselves - in that order, of course.”
Amid laughter, he admitted, “We’re under some pressure - it’s the fifth week.”
Legislative leaders have asked the subcommittee, which includes representatives of both the House and Senate State Affairs committees, to come up with a bill by Friday. The group plans to meet every day this week.
The Legislature must pass legislation outlining how Idaho will comply with new federal laws opening local telephone service to competition. The PUC and a legislative task force have been working for months with companies that either provide service now or want to under the newly deregulated system, but each has its own interest as far as how Idaho should proceed. The companies haven’t been able to agree.
Existing phone companies want lots of protections built into the law to ease their transition from regulated monopolies to a more open, competitive market. Competitors want the market as open to them as possible. Small, rural companies want special exemptions.
Although each group has proposed new legislation, Sen. Hal Bunderson, R-Meridian, said, “We’ve got to choose one.”
The PUC’s proposal “seems to be the most independent one to draw from,” he said.
Crane said the switch to a competitive market for local phone service may be a “nuisance” for customers at first. “But I think it will free up innovative products and ideas. The competitors will have to come up with those to stay in the market and be successful.”
Three companies already have won PUC approval to compete with GTE for local telephone service in North Idaho; nine more have applications pending.