Thursday, June 08, 2006

HB 699, BellSouth's bill, passes in Senate

HB 699 passed in the Senate, 27 to 10, today but not without a real, and heartening, fight. The bill now goes back to the house where the vote will be whether or not to accept amendments approved on the Senate floor and in the Senate Commerce Committee. Practically speaking the big fight is over. What's left is trying to make sure that amendments that ameliorate some of the bill's worse features don't get stripped away.

It was interesting to watch the streaming video. There was a lot of maneuvering going on. Most noticeably the bill's author was trying hard to shut down debate and the opponents were having none of it.

Most of the maneuvering circled around several sets of amendments.

The most significant was offered by Hollis, the chair of the Senate commerce committee who was responsible for pushing the house bill through his committee. That short set of amendments attempted to close the loophole that would have resulted from "information services" being excluded from the definition of gross revenues...since AT&T was adamant that its new video service was an "information service" it wouldn't have been covered. Since AT&T is buying BellSouth that was a reasonable concern. The new language explicitly exempts cable and video service revenue from the definition of information services and so gives some protection to municipalities.

Senator Nevers offered a amendment which purported to protect the owners of private property from having a private company use their property. The amendment, however, specifically authorizes the private corporations to use any rights of way that were granted by the owner to any public utility. I fail to see how making sure that landowners can't grant access to some and not other uses is doing anything except take away their rights to write contracts they way the prefer. I can see how it might be very valuable for BellSouth to be assured that they'd not to have to pay the private owners anything for the new use...

Most interesting to Lafayette was the amendment that changed a single letter. It changed "has" to "had." Ellington made it clear that he thought a benefit to Lafayette was behind the "technical" amendment but eventually decided not to oppose it. The issue revolved around a clause that says that any community that "has" a pre-74 home rule charter is opted out of this bill. (That not really true, but for the moment let's let it go.) Lafayette is the largest city operating under a charter granted after that date. But it "had" a pre-74 home rule charter prior to consolidation into the city-parish form of government. Michot eventually voted for the bill after having voted against a less offensive version in committee. Getting that single "d" into the bill may well be why he switched.

But all that is interesting in a relatively dry and analytic sort of way. The real fun and the real passion of afternoon came with fiery speeches given by Senators Cravins and Romero. A number of Senators rose to attack the bill but no others came close to vigor and directness with which Cravins and Romero attacked the bill.

Some bits of Cravin's speech:
Complaining that the legislature didn't respect local government:
We are saying to them that You have to do what this almighty legislature legislature says and what BellSouth says and what AT&T says--because that's what the bill is it is It doesn't matter how you couch it is an an AT&T multinational conglomerate bill--that will ultimately Walmart the entire cable system in the state of Lousiana...
Cravins complains that the bill will lead to an AT&T monopoly and higher prices in Lousiana.
I'm simply saying let's stick with the people and not fall for this rope-a-dope that BellSouth and AT&T are ...throwing at us today. We need to defeat this bill.
He notes that the phone company has brought new services only to the wealthy in Texas:
You cherry-picked in Texas. You're gonna cheery-pick in Louisiana. You are going to take and drive the costs of cable services higher in the next ten years.
Romero worried about costing local governments revenue.
You want to hurt people back home? Vote for this bill. This is smoke and mirrors...I urge you to vote against this bill.
My guess is that all that made the self-satisfied majority a little nervous. Good.

When this thing comes back to hurt local governments communities would be well-served to remember who stood with the corporations and who decided to stand with local communities.

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