To its credit, Legislature extends life of regulatory panel by another 4 years

Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Alaskans could be the winners in the latest installment of what has come to be known as the ''Phone Wars.''

The state Senate, as the final minutes ticked away in the legislative session, unanimously approved a four-year extension of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. In doing so, senators fought off fierce attempts by the state's largest telephone company and its supporters to obtain passage of provisions that would prove beneficial to the company in its market fight with General Communications Inc.

The bickering between the two telephone companies threatened the very existence of the regulatory commission. Without an extension by the Legislature and a signature from Gov. Frank Murkowski, the panel would have entered a one-year phaseout period that would have led to madness in the utilities arena.

The bill approved Wednesday, in addition to extending the commission through 2007, does require the commission to review its procedures and recommend improvements by Nov. 15. Rejection of the ACS provisions will allow three new commission members appointed by Gov. Murkowski the opportunity to work on the dispute between the two phone companies.

The commission and its staff oversee a variety of industries: electric, gas, water, sewer, garbage, telecommunications.

It is the telecommunications field however, that for years has bedeviled the Legislature and the five-member regulatory panel. Issues that surfaced this year confronted lawmakers last year, leading to a special session that resulted in just a one-year extension of the commission.

Gov. Murkowski and many among the House and Senate leadership this year wanted a simple bill to extend the commission. But ACS, claiming the panel continually issues rulings that benefit GCI, sought to attach favorable regulatory changes to the renewal bill essentially legislating what it couldn't get from the commission.

Both companies, knowing the fight would again enter the Capitol, spread the money around in the 2002 election cycle to secure some influence.

GCI's top six executives and an employee political action committee ladled out $57,000 to about 20 candidates, most of them incumbents, according to Alaska Public Offices Commission records. They gave slightly more to the Republican Party organization than to the Democratic Party organization and contributed to a group, Citizens for Competition, which in turn gave to candidates.

ACS' nine top executives and various ACS political action committees gave a combined $39,400 to a greater number of candidates, including incumbents of both parties, but did not give to either of the party organizations.

Whether any of that money brought GCI the votes it needed to defeat ACS will likely never be known. What is known is that the Phone Wars aren't going away. And neither is the Regulatory Commission of Alaska yet.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

May 23

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