by Dave Felice
After testifying in opposition to Senate Bill 12-157, I am disappointed, discouraged, as well as somewhat impressed with the legislative process. The Senate Business, Labor, and Technology Committee postponed a vote after almost eight hours of testimony Monday (3/19/2012).
SB 12-157 is a huge document, aimed at what sponsors call “modernization” of Colorado telecommunications law. Primarily, the measure would eliminate state subsidies for wired telephony in locations where there is competitive service. A new, but smaller, state fund would be set up to help pay for “broadband” (high speed) Internet service in areas where broadband is deemed deficient.
I testified on behalf of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and CenturyLink, the state’s largest phone company. CenturyLink (CTL) operates in both densely-populated urban areas and remote rural areas of the state. Both CWA and CTL oppose the legislation because it threatens imbedded investment and would result in a loss of jobs. Other less regulated phone and Internet providers support the bill.
In the Senate, SB 12-157 is co-sponsored by Senators Lois Tochtrop, a Lakewood Democrat, and Mark Scheffel, a Republican from Parker. Tochtrop is also Chair of the committee, so Vice Chair Irene Aguilar, an East-Central Denver Democrat, presided over the hearing. Scheffel is not a member of the committee.
Tochtrop introduced the bill in glowing terms. Without challenge, she described how the so-called reforms would stimulate investment, create new jobs, and claiming consumers would reap the benefits. She then deferred to Scheffel, who proceeded to call witnesses who supported the legislation. It was evident Scheffel intended to try to present as much positive testimony as possible before calling opponents.
Without saying so directly, the supporters of SB 12-157 tried to portray CenturyLink as the heir to the monopolistic, anti-competitive behemoth telephone company that everyone loves to hate. It became clear that supporters want the legislation because it would allow them all the freedoms, privileges, and advantages of competition without any of the responsibilities.
The most pertinent, insightful, and even impressive questions came from Republican Senators Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch and Shawn Mitchell of Broomfield. Both were wary of the claims and indicated legislation might actually be bad for business. Mitchell also was skeptical of the new broadband fund which would be under the jurisdiction of Governor John Hickenlooper’s Office of Information Technology instead of the Public Utilities Commission.
It was clear Senator Harvey did his homework. He carried a copy of the bill with multiple colored tabs to mark important sections.
The bill’s sponsors also claimed they had spent 18 months carefully crafting the legislation, attempting to involve all the players and achieve workable compromises. I question this assertion as much as I question any government claim. If this bill has been under development for the past year-and-a-half, media coverage and open, public discussion has been woefully and disgracefully inadequate at best.
Until this time, Tochtrop has been known as sympathetic to Colorado’s working class. She may well lose that distinction if the bill goes forward. Senators Suzanne Williams of Aurora and Irene Aguilar are also likely to lose support among Democratic voters.
Several times during the hearing, committee members actually admitted they were not paying attention. Senator Aguilar had a computer in front of her the entire time.