House proposing two-year RCA extension bill

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- House leaders propose extending the life of the state's utility regulatory agency for at least two more years while a panel studies the way it does business.

The House Finance Committee on Monday approved a bill to do that in the first day of a special session called by Gov. Tony Knowles.

Knowles called lawmakers back to Juneau to consider a measure to extend the sunset period for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The commission is set to expire June 30 and enter a one-year ''winding down'' period in which its workload will be reduced, said commission Chairwoman Nan Thompson.

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska regulates electric companies, sewer and water utilities and the state's telephone services.

Some of the utilities such as Alaska Communications Services have been critical of the commission's past performance and have urged lawmakers to make sweeping reforms within the agency.

Chugach Electric Association officials point to a backlog of about 400 unresolved cases before the commission and complained of a seeming reluctance by the five-member panel to issue final decisions.

Chugach President Bruce Davidson said the company loses $200,000 a month while it awaits a final decision on one rate case before the commission.

While ACS President Wes Carson accused the commission of bias against his company and recommended that it replace Chairwoman Nan Thompson.

Criticism surfaced late in the regular legislative session and prompted a core group in the GOP-controlled Senate to block a measure to extend the agency's authority for four years.

House Finance Co-Chairman Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, said the measure approved Monday aims at reaching a compromise with entrenched opponents in the Senate.

Under the measure, a committee would report back to the Legislature by Oct. 31, 2003 on recommendations to reform the agency and reduce its backlog.

The panel would includes representatives from various utilities, commission staff and someone representing consumers. It would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders.

The House bill also sets tighter deadlines for the commission to resolve utility issues. And it reauthorizes the commission until June 30, 2004.

Thompson praised the legislation and called the proposal to form a review committee ''very workable.''

But some Senate Republicans have insisted that the agency undergo intense scrutiny before the Legislature reauthorizes it.

''The focus and the attention does not come to bear until you look at a reauthorization. Because then they have something to lose in the fight too,'' said Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell.

Taylor said he wants to allow the agency to enter its so-called wind-down period and allow the next Legislature decide whether to extend the life of the regulatory body.

Knowles introduced a bill in the Senate on Monday that would reauthorize the commission until June 30, 2006. That measure is expected to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Lawmakers have billed the reauthorization bill as a ''phone war'' between ACS -- the state's largest local telephone service -- and its nearest competitor General Communications Inc.

While GCI said it supports reauthorizing the commission, Carson urged lawmakers to not reauthorize the agency and accused it of a bias against his company.

Among his recommendations, Carson asked that a legislative oversight committee scrutinize the agency and that Thompson disqualify herself from hearing ACS cases.

ACS has received a number of adverse rulings from the commission, including a key case to determine how much it can charge GCI for access to its lines.

At the same time, the commission has agreed with GCI more than 80 percent of the time in cases that its heard since July 1999, Carson said during testimony on Monday.

Carson complained that because of regulatory decisions, his company must provide competitors access to ACS phone lines at a loss to the company.

Thompson denied charges of bias and said that each regulatory commission decisions is made by at least three commissioners.

Thompson also dismissed claims by some utilities that they could face retaliation for speaking out against the agency that oversees cases that affect their business.

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