Lawmakers return for special session on RCA, veterans initiative

Posted: Monday, June 24, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Two measures that stalled during the Legislature's regular session are back on the table Monday as lawmakers return for a special session called by Gov. Tony Knowles.

The Democratic governor will ask the GOP-controlled Legislature to reauthorize the state's telephone and utility regulatory agency for four more years. That agency is set to expire this year and enter a one-year period of winding down before it dissolves.

Knowles is also asking lawmakers for $2.6 million to open vacant beds in the Alaska Pioneers' Homes system to veterans.

The Legislature rebuffed that request during its 121-day regular session and a seven-day overtime session it called to approve a fiscal 2003 state budget.

Lawmakers instead approved a pilot program to allow the state to seek federal funding for elderly veterans already staying in Alaska Pioneers Homes.

A more contentious issue for lawmakers the fate of the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which oversees regulated utilities and the state's telephone industry.

The House earlier approved a plan to extend the agency's June 30 expiration date only to have the measure fail in the Senate with no substantive hearings.

Senate critics of the RCA are calling for a sweeping examination of the agency on the eve of its sunset date. After June 30 the agency enters a one-year winding down period in which commission Chairwoman Nan Thompson has said its caseload will be curtailed in preparation for dissolving the agency.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor convened four days of hearings in mid-June, taking testimony from RCA staff and the major utility companies in Alaska, some of them critical of the agency.

Some electric companies complained that the Regulatory Commission of Alaska is plagued by delays that cost utility customers money and that commissioners don't act decisively enough.

The sharpest criticism comes from the state's largest telephone company, Alaska Communications Systems, which has been blocked by the commission from charging higher prices to competing phone companies for access to its lines.

ACS is often pitted against rival General Communications Inc. over issues affecting competitive telephone service in Alaska. GCI, the state's second largest local phone company, holds about 40 percent of Anchorage's phone market.

Dana Tindall, a senior vice president at GCI, told lawmakers the commission is performing well and that allowing the agency to dissolve will mean more complaints from regulated utilities.

Taylor, R-Wrangell, has insisted that the commission will not be allowed to dissolve, but that it should not be extended without a closer scrutiny of its performance.

The Legislature approved $300,000 for a study of the state's telephone industry that will examine the state of competition in Alaska and the regulatory agency's performance.

Knowles press spokesman Bob King said the Legislature already has the power to examine the agency and make any changes, and said the issue should not be tied to the commission's sunset deadline.

''If that's their goal, they should have done that during the regular session when they are called in to do the people's business,'' King said.

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