Legislature adjourns without deal on RCA reauthorization

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- The 22nd Legislature adjourned its special session on Tuesday seven days late and without agreement on a plan to extend the state's utility regulatory agency.

Gov. Tony Knowles called the Legislature back for a June 24 special session to take up the issue again.

Lawmakers were never able to resolve the battle over whether to extend the authority of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. The House twice approved a bill to extend the agency to June 30, 2006, and it stalled in the Senate both times.

House Speaker Brian Porter, R-Anchorage, said it remains unclear whether a compromise can be worked out to allow the commission to continue after next year.

Some in the Republican-controlled Senate are demanding an in-depth review of the agency and the state's telecommunications market before approving it.

The agency regulates the state's utility and telephone industry and has handed Alaska Communications Systems some adverse rulings in the past. ACS is the state's largest telephone service.

''You don't do what they are doing to a judicial agency -- which to me is intimidation -- and expect the normal objective decision-making process to occur,'' Porter said.

Sen. Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell, led the charge to block a vote on reauthorizing the commission in the Senate. Taylor, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, refused to hold hearings on the bill during both the regular session and in the days afterward.

Under pressure from other Republicans in the Senate, Taylor eventually agreed to only a 3-month extension. Knowles wanted at least a year extension for the agency created in 1999.

Taylor has insisted the state contract a $300,000 study on telephone deregulation in the state before extending the life of the agency beyond next year. That study was approved in the state's fiscal 2003 budget.

''I think we need to take a real hard look at the way they are doing business and how that business is affecting every rate payer in the state,'' Taylor said.

Some lawmakers coined the battle over the agency as a ''phone war'' between ACS and its nearest competitor, General Communications Inc., which both lobbied heavily on the issue.

ACS president Wes Carson has said the company has problems with rulings in which the RCA refused to allow ACS to charge its competitors higher prices for access to its lines.

Commission decisions have unfairly favored GCI in the local phone market and the Legislature should wait until the state-funded study is complete before acting, Carson has said.

Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, blamed Taylor for the extended session that saw many lawmakers left in Juneau with nothing to do but wait for a resolution to the dispute.

''I think you have some underlying phone wars, I think you have some issues that didn't get a good letting,'' Berkowitz said. ''The responsibility for the entire Legislature sitting here for this time rests on his shoulders.''

Lawmakers were to have adjourned May 14 but were thrust into a special session to handle several issues left unresolved during the 121-day regular session, including reauthorizing the state's utility regulators.

Knowles wanted two bills to allow the state to receive federal funds for veterans in the Alaska Pioneers' Home system and to create an advisory board for the assisted living centers.

Knowles also called on lawmakers to take up a proposal to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot on subsistence. But lawmakers ultimately were unable to resolve that intractable issue either.

Most of the last two days have centered around getting Senate approval of a plan to extend the regulatory agency.

Many in the 20-member Senate favored extending the agency, but not enough Republicans backed the measure to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Without a bill to extend its authority, the agency would enter a one-year phase-out period before shutting down.

The commission was set up in 1999 after the Alaska Public Utilities Commission was dissolved. The RCA oversees telephone companies and water, sewer and electrical utilities.

Knowles appointed the five-member board to varying terms. The Legislature confirms the appointments.

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