Thursday, May 26, 2005

"LUS fiber plan gets exemption from bill's rule"

The Advocate's story on yesterday's Senate Commerce Committee (posted late to the website) hearing clarifies some issues left over from yesterday and points to one of the highlights of the session: the potential involvement of New Orleans in laying a fiber optic network of its own.

There were, you will recall, two critical issues as far as Louisiana municipalities were concerned: the requirement of a vote (and potentially multiple votes) and the question of effectively fining any city that decided to provide some competition for the current providers. The issue of a vote was settled in favor of Cox in spite of protests from Lafayette and the Louisiana Municipal Association that coming back this year to rework a bill written last year after extensive negoitiations and compromise was simply not the way things should be done. A more normal legislative procedure would be to let such a hard-won bill have a little life before trying go back in and change the negotiated settlement. Here's the way the article puts it:
As the bill stands with the new amendment, any municipality planning to enter the communications business in the future -- such as New Orleans -- would have to put the issue to a vote.
The second issue, of fining cities for daring to oppose Cox or their local cable provider, is more complicated. Blanchard does a good job of distilling it:
The Senate committee also addressed the issue in Broome's bill that would allow cable companies to rid themselves of paying franchise fees should a city enter the telecommunications business. The panel agreed to an amendment which, in effect, made such an exemption something that would never happen -- as the law stands now.

This amendment means that if a municipal government calls an election -- which the law in its current form would require in all cases -- and the public OKs the issue, then the franchise and contractual obligations of the cable companies would not be suspended.
This is a real win for the municipalities of our state. What the vanishing act may well point out is how poorly drawn the bill was in the first place: both of its central points were ammended in ways that completely changed their effect. On voiding franchise agreements it seems that the bill violated the state constititution on at least two accounts: 1) It effectively voided valid contracts. Louisiana's constititution simply forbids this. 2) had the effect of granting the use of public resources for free—something else that is rightly unconstitutional in this state. But far beyond the legal stupidity of the law as it was originally drafted is its political foolhardiness. Consider trying to speak in favor of a bill that would fine Lafayette 900,000 dollars a year —about 9 million dollars total the way the bill structured it—and giving all that money to "the cable company" because Lafayette had the nerve to actually do something that "the cable company" didn't care for: offer a little competition. This might all sound reasonable while talking to a lobbyist over dinner. A little wine will do wonders. But my guess is that it would have been much harder for the Honorable Broome to defend on the floor of the senate. How many of her constituents on Baton Rouge's "northside" would have the least increment of sympathy for Cox? How would her mentor, now Baton Rouge's mayor, Kip Holden, really feel about opening up this can of worms? There's a name for stuff like this: political suicide. Ms Broome got off easy.

New Orleans

By far the most interesting new development from the committee meeting was the broad hint from Tom Ed McHugh, head of the Louisiana Municipal Association, that New Orleans was actively considering some form of fiber-optic network. This will not be entirely a surprise to regular readers but I've never seen it mentioned publicly outside of this blog and one of Blanchard's analysis pieces. My own position was that it seemed far-fetched but that in Louisiana stranger things had happened. I remain of that opinion. You might think that the recognition that this bill could effect the largest voting block in the legislature—and the commerce committee—might auger poorly for the bill. Not in our version of local politics:
Two state senators from New Orleans on the Senate panel -- Francis Heitmeier and Ann Duplessis, both Democrats -- said they wanted the election requirement added to the bill because they are concerned New Orleans could embark on a plan similar to Lafayette's.

Only a few cities in Louisiana have the capability to follow Lafayette's lead, McHugh said.

New Orleans is "next in line," he said.
There is are a few more tidbits in regard to this part of the story:
The New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board has a series of bills in this session looking to make it easier to lay conduit for fiber-optic cable with sewer pipes.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a former Cox Communications official who has visited Lafayette while the city worked on its plans to offer telecommunications services.
All the earlier news about New Orleans had pointed toward a buisness-oriented city-owned ring in the downtown business district across Canal from the Vieux Carre. But the above and a story I found recently which made it clear that all of New Orleans is slated for a mandatory sewer upgrade argue for much, much broader possibilities. And here I thought Broussard and Mayor Langlinais might be next.... News

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