Saturday, June 17, 2006

State Cable Franchise Law Conference Amendments

HB 699, the state-wide cable franchise law, went to conference and emerged with yet another set of amendments. They don't make any fundamental changes in what will be a very bad law when it passes on the hurried last day of the legislative session.

This bill has been a lesson in the intricacies of legislative procedure. The bill originated in the House (hence "HB") and was heavily amended in committee. It was further amended in the Senate. The House chose to reject the version with the Senate amendments and so it went to a conference committee made up of three members of each house. That group, å with pro-BellSouth legislators, came up with a further amended bill which goes before both bodies for an up or down vote--no floor amendments are allowed. So we are now at the last moment with what is finally, after more than a 130 amendments, a final bill.

There's the good, the bad, and the mixed in these last changes.

From a purely local point of view the most feared product of a conference was avoided: the revised bill preserves Mike Michot's single-letter amendment that sponsors hope will allow Lafayette to join the roster of cities that are exempted from the worst effects of the law.

Several other amendments, reportedly urged by the DOTD, preserve the ability of the state's road-builders to set engineering standards and issue permits. One small clause seems to also preserve some similar authority for local governments by restricting the removal of local government's rights to set standards on the use of its property to build-out requirements only. Build-out refers to the practice of local governments of requiring any company that wants to use the public's property to provide their services to the whole of the public. (This law is really mostly motivated by BellSouth's desire to remove that single requirement.) The part in red shows how that amendment alters the proposed law:
No franchising authority, state agency, or political subdivision of the statemay impose any build-out requirements for construction of a cable system or wireline facilities used to distribute video programming services or for cable or video service deployment on a holder of a certificate.
That is worth focusing on for a minute. A bill passes both houses of the legislature which strips both the state and local communities of any ability to set any standards--engineering, location in right of way, depth, place and nature of pole attachments, etcetera on how a corporation thinks its use of public property would best serve its profit and nobody understands that leaving the corporation free to do anything it wants is not a good idea?! The only place it is caught and fixed is at the very last minute when someone from the DOTD perks up and notices that, hey, this is just crazy and would give telecoms and only telecoms the right to "cherry-pick" all the best locations in the right of way and run over all other providers who have to abide by rational rules? It's stuff like this--more than big cases of obvious corruption--that should give citizens pause about their government. It's clear that the only way that something so wrong-headed as this can pass over the complaints of local officials is if the legislators have a servile confidence in the idea that anything a big corporation wants to do is "right" and mindlessly agree with corporations that any objection by local governments is just a self-interested smokescreen. The presumption should be precisely the opposite. Corporations are happy to admit their self-interest and local government officials are in that office precisely because their citizens trusted their judgment. That we have a legislature that doesn't even need to be bought to sell-out local communities in this way is more appalling than if we saw checks being handed out the floor of the state legislature again. (Notice, please, that state government is still all about roads--those that build them and say which projects are feasible and worthy and which not still trump even BellSouth. What has changed is that the united opposition of cities, towns, and police juries no longer does.)

On the downside another amendment seems to limit the ability to get any fees at all for the use of rights-of-way by telecom corporations to local governments. Meaning that state governments can't charge such fees. That's not much of an issue now, since federal law prohibits such. But since the 1996 telecommunications act is up for revision maybe some forward-looking BellSouth lawyer is worried that the prohibition might be abolished.

I expect that this bill will pass in one of those periods when the speaker or a surrogate gets up and in his best rapid fire, sing-song auctioneer's voice calls out the bare title of the bill, its status, and calls for a vote--"selling" bill after bill as rapidly as possible.

This time what is being sold out is the people of the state.

This bill, even after endless amendments, preserves the basic defect it began with: It is a bill written to satisfy the desires of essentially one company, BellSouth, to profit off the use of public property without taking on any responsibility to serve all that own the property it wants to use. By prohibiting such "build-out" requirements the law makes it certain that no company in the future will feel obligated to serve any but the most profitable with new services and makes it state policy to discriminate against rural and poor citizens. There's a laundry-list of other serious problems, any one of which would probably sink a bill backed by anyone other than BellSouth, but it all comes down to that single "taking" of public property for private profit.

You can still tell your legislators you think they should vote against this travesty and demand a roll-call vote on this legislation. Or even engage in a little slowdown that might leave the ill-begotten thing on the table as the session ends. They ought to at least know that someone out there watching. (Find your legislators, Represenatives' addresses, Senators' addresses)

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