Idaho’s telephone deregulation bill, one of the hottest issues of the 1997 legislative session, has cleared the House and is on its way to the Senate.
Sponsors called it a compromise that didn’t please anybody, but the House voted 63-7 for the measure on Wednesday. Rep. Ken Robison, D-Boise, lost 60-9 when he attempted to put the bill up for amendment, and he was joined only by six other Democrats on the final vote.
All 59 Republicans in the House voted for it.
“I think this is at a minimum a $20 million rip-off of the people,” said Rep. Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint. “This is the bummer of the session.”
The measure changes state laws to conform to the telephone deregulation passed by Congress last year. Sponsors said it will allow outside companies to compete with what have been monopolies in offering local telephone service.
The Public Utilities Commission will retain jurisdiction over rates for local telephone service until it determines that “effective competition” is present. Then rates will be deregulated.
Revenue from other sources, such as the Yellow Pages, may not be used to subsidize the cost of providing local services.
Rural telephone companies are exempt for up to five years. After that, they also will be subject to competition from outside providers.
Outside companies have two ways to get into a local market. They can build their own facilities or they can buy access from the existing carrier at 15 percent to 25 percent below the carrier’s normal charges
Opponents argued it would cause local telephone rates to double, something hotly disputed by sponsors Rep. Ron Crane, R-Nampa and Rep. Paul Kjellander, R-Boise.
“A lot of misinformation has been spread around on this bill,” Crane said. He called that “telescare.” “They are trying to call people, scare them by telling them their rates are going to double under this bill.”
To Crane’s claim that the measure would not double local rates, Stoicheff said, “It may not double it, but it sure will bring the price up.”
US West Communications in southern Idaho and GTE Northwest in North Idaho are the major local service providers. Robison maintained that some provisions of the bill were drawn up to favor US West.
Crane denied it. “US West is not happy with this legislation,” he said. “They are supporting it out of compromise.”
He said US West “ate” about $30 million when the telephone company accepted a definition of depreciation allowances.
Crane said there are about a dozen companies, including AT&T;, MCI and Sprint, that might want to compete for local service in Idaho.