RCA issue could get complicated again

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) A battle over the state's utility regulating panel led to a special session last year. This year, the governor asked for a simple extension of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. But a substitute that would put the Legislature firmly in the Alaska telecom wars is now in the House Finance Committee.

The bill is broadly seen as a boost to Anchorage-based Alaska Communications Systems Group Inc. in its battle with General Communications Inc. for local telephone customers and profits.

The eight-page bill calls for shorter depreciation on equipment, which would allow ACS to raise rates for wholesale and retail customers. It also mandates that ACS can recover all of its costs for providing facilities to GCI, along with a reasonable profit.

ACS has complained bitterly about the rates the RCA set for GCI to use its lines to individual customers. GCI says the wholesale rates are fair, and the proposed changes would mean higher rates for consumers.

The bill is designed to increase competition, said Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks, who was on the subcommittee that put the bill together.

As policymakers, we adopted things we felt would be more competitive and make things happen,'' he said. Hopefully this will give the RCA better guidance for its decisions.''

Since it was forwarded to the House Finance Committee April 28, the bill has been in a waiting mode.

I'm confident there will be amendments to clean it up and bring it significantly in line with the (governor's) original proposal,'' said Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks, a member of the finance panel.

Over in the Senate, a simple bill to extend the commission for three years is in the Senate Finance Committee, after getting five do pass'' endorsements in the Labor and Commerce Committee there.

I prefer a clean regulatory bill,'' said Sen. Con Bunde, chairman of Labor and Commerce and co-chair of Finance. If we start tinkering with it, we'll never stop. We'll have the Legislature setting rates, and that's the last thing we want.''

The governor is already making his mark on the regulatory commission, Bunde said, and it's prudent to wait and see how that works out.

There's been a change of people there, a change in how they operate,'' he said.

Gov. Frank Murkowski's original bill asked for the commission to be extended for four more years. Last year's special session called for RCA to sunset on June 30.

The continued operation of the RCA is essential to ensure that Alaskan consumers have reliable and affordable utility services and to assure a stable business environment for utilities and pipelines,'' he said in his letter asking the House and Senate to approve the bill.

The governor just wants a clean extension,'' spokesman John Manly said this week.

The RCA regulates industries from telephone and electric utilities to pipelines and garbage haulers.

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