Lawmakers reach compromise on RCA reauthorization bill

Posted: Thursday, June 27, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Alaska's utility regulatory agency was extended for another year in an early morning deal reached by the Legislature on Thursday, but it escaped significant restructuring being pushed by some in the Senate.

With the agreement, the Republican-controlled Legislature adjourned a four-day special session called by Democrat Gov. Tony Knowles.

House and Senate leaders reached a compromise on a plan that will eventually lead to a new chairman for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

The commission, which is set to expire on June 30, has been the target of much criticism by some of the state's largest utilities during the special session.

Some companies complained that the commission takes too long in making decisions and that it is too tentative in orders ultimately handed down.

Alaska Communications Systems, the state's largest telephone company, accused the five-member commission of bias against the company for several adverse rulings it has received.

ACS President Wes Carson told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the commission has agreed with the telephone company's nearest competitor -- General Communications Inc., -- more than 80 percent of the time.

Lawmakers and lobbyists saw the special session as being muddled in a so-called ''phone wars'' between ACS and GCI. Both sides lobbied heavily for legislation to either restructure or preserve the commission.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Robin Taylor had led the charge to restructure the agency. Taylor's committee offered a bill that would create a new regulatory agency for telephone service, dragging ACS and GCI cases out of the hands of the existing commission.

House Republicans -- who earlier had approved a two year extension for the agency -- and some Senate said the proposal went too far.

Ultimately, the two houses agreed to a plan in which commissioners elect a new chairman every two years. Chairwoman Nan Thompson, who was criticized by Taylor for staying at a GCI-owned lodge in 2000 for a weekend, would be replaced Jan. 15, 2003 under the proposal.

''This is a compromise, ACS had to give a little and GCI had to give,'' said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

Hoffman and other Senate Democrats voted for the plan despite stalling the vote late Wednesday because Republicans refused to take up a veterans bill sought by Knowles.

Knowles called the Legislature into a special session to take up the utility bill and a proposal to spend $2.6 million to fill 100 beds in the Alaska Pioneers' Homes system that are vacant because of budget cuts.

The Knowles administration wants to expand the state's assisted living facilities to also house veterans. Under the plan, 20 additional veterans would be admitted to the facilities along with 80 elderly Alaskans.

Knowles held a press conference midday Wednesday to demand that Republicans take a vote on the measure.

Republicans said they support a proposal by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski to seek $16 million in federal funds to expand the state facilites to house veterans. Senate Republicans argued that Knowles plan would be delayed by federal approval and that it is a ploy to seek more funding for the state facilities. Murkowski is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

''It does nothing for the veterans. It's a pure appropriation to the Pioneers' Homes,'' said Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks.

Lawmakers adjourned without holding a hearing on Knowles request.

A Knowles spokesman said the governor will not call the Legislature into another special session to take up the veterans bills. But he called the action a ''disgrace'' and urged veterans to hold lawmakers accountable in this year's election.

Because of a new legislative map formulated under redistricting all but three of the 60 seats in the Legislature are up for election Nov. 5.

The utility bill approved by the Legislature on Thursday imposes tighter deadlines on the commission to issue decisions in rate cases and other orders.

During about 30 hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, many utilities complained that the commission's backlog of about 400 cases is costing them money.

It also creates a seven-member task force to examine the commission's operations and report back to the Legislature. Six members of the commission would be appointed by legislative leaders and the governor would make one appointment.

The commission is now set to expire in a year unless the next Legislature approves another extension. Without the extension, the commission would enter a one-year winding down period.



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