JUNEAU (AP) With only a few hours to go, lawmakers were running out of time Thursday to pass a bill extending the Regulatory Commission of Alaska in another showdown over the ''phone wars.''
Without an extension, the RCA that regulates 300 utilities in Alaska from the trans Alaska oil pipeline to local garbage haulers will be dismantled over the coming year, said RCA chairman Dave Harbour.
''If (an extension) doesn't occur, we will conduct a dismantling of the agency during a wind-down phase in a responsible way,'' he said.
Under current law, the RCA is to undergo a one-year phase-out beginning July 1.
Harbour said all 50 states have a regulatory commission, not only to execute federal regulatory laws at the state level but ''to perform detailed rate regulations work that the Legislature does not have the time nor the expertise to accomplish.''
Alaska has had a utilities regulatory agency since statehood. The Public Services Commission operated from 1959 to 1972, then came the Alaska Public Utilities Commission from 1972 to 1999, when the agency was reorganized and became the RCA.
The commission is in the middle of an ongoing fight between the state's two largest phone companies, Alaska Communications Systems Inc. and General Communications Inc.
ACS wants the RCA phased out, arguing that its regulatory decisions have placed the company at an unfair disadvantage competing against GCI.
ACS lawyer Leonard Steinberg was reluctant to comment Thursday.
''We have to wait and see what happens,'' he said.
ACS is in the middle of a residential rate-setting cycle that began in 2001 and extends into next year, Steinberg said.
ACS has long complained that it loses money leasing lines to GCI under rates set by the RCA. GCI has said ACS's numbers aren't accurate and RCA has set fair rates.
ACS, which has about 300,000 local access lines statewide, owns the part of the line that brings service into homes and businesses. Under federal law designed to promote competition, ACS has to allow other companies access to those lines.
Dana Tindall, senior vice president of legal affairs for GCI, said if the agency goes into wind-down, she expects everything to remain the same for the year. GCI has no critical issues before the commission, she said, but is involved in two proceedings over the price for leasing ACS equipment in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
Harbour said a wind-down would mean he will lose valuable people through attrition in the coming year due to the uncertainty. And he said the agency also will have to be selective in what work it accepts so it doesn't leave a lot hanging at the July 1, 2004, deadline.
Harbor said he also will inform the federal government that the RCA won't be able to oversee a program to bring affordable electricity to rural areas or a $7.5 million grant to extend broadband capabilities to the Bush.
''Alaska must have a regulatory agency,'' Harbour said.
GCI wanted the agency extended for several more years, as did Gov. Frank Murkowski.
Senate President Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, who favored a simple extension of the agency, blamed the RCA problems this session on the House. He said lawmakers took too long to get two RCA bills to the Senate for consideration. He also said both Republicans and Democrats were split on the issue.
House Bill 111 would have given the RCA a four-year extension and required the agency to review its procedures and come up with ways to improve by Nov. 15.
House Bill 206 was a far more complicated bill that would have required the RCA to make changes in how it sets rates and determines costs in competitive phone markets.
''It was just too much to get through,'' Therriault said.
House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz said the inaction in the Senate says something about the leaders in that chamber.
''It is a poor reflection on the quality of the leadership and it leaves consumers vulnerable,'' he said.
Murkowski had asked lawmakers to give the agency four more years, saying that three of the five RCA commissioners are new members he's appointed.
The governor said if an RCA bill doesn't get passed this session, there's always 2004.
''We will have to go out and take care of it next year,'' he said.
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