A Republican summary of a bill that removes regulations on phone companies in Kansas said that it “puts legislators in an easier position of not having to ‘choose between friends.’” That should have been a gigantic red flag, as the “friends” being referred to were the phone companies, not Kansas consumers.
Yet only one state lawmaker in the entire House voted against the bill.
Rep. Larry Hibbard, R-Toronto, expressed concern that the changes could result in higher phone rates and poorer service for some areas. “This bill may come back to haunt rural Kansas,” he warned.
The Senate – which is holding committee hearings this week on the bill – should heed this warning and make sure consumers are protected.
As an article in the Sunday Eagle reported, the bill relieves phone companies from having to follow state rules protecting consumers from fraud and abusive billing practices, prevents state utility regulators from enforcing minimum quality of service standards in AT&T areas, and relieves AT&T of having to provide phone service to poor people on Lifeline subsidies or to difficult-to-serve rural customers.
The Citizens’ Utility Ratepayer Board, the state’s consumer watchdog agency, opposes the current bill, arguing it would allow AT&T to simply abandon wire-line customers, regardless of whether they have access to working cell service.
“This bill is written by AT&T for AT&T,” said David Springe, chief consumer counsel for CURB. “AT&T could do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants and for whatever price it wants.”
So how could this bill sail through the House, with lawmakers paying little attention to how it might affect consumers? Perhaps it’s because their “friends” spend a lot of money wining and dining them.
AT&T, for example, has seven registered lobbyists who spent $26,105 to entertain legislators in 2012, according to records of the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
To his credit, Sen. Pat Apple, R-Louisburg, chairman of the Senate Utilities Committee, promised to fully vet the bill. “We need to make sure the bill contains adequate protection for consumers,” he told The Eagle.
The rest of the Senate must insist on that, too.
The telecommunication industry is changing, as many consumers drop wire-line service in favor of Internet phone service and cellphones. As a result, regulations may need updating to reflect this new reality.
But lawmakers must not abandon the poor or people who live in areas without good cellphone coverage – no matter what their friends say.
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee