If a Springville legislator succeeds in getting a bill passed that gives US WEST revenue from Yellow Pages directories and sets up a $45 million legacy fund, who will pay for that fund?
Not US WEST. You will.That version of HB263, proposed by Republican Rep. Brent Haymond, appears to be resurfacing on Capitol Hill. The proposal increases phone rates 45 cents to 53 cents each year for five years while annual Yellow Pages revenues of $30 million are phased out of telephone service operations.
US WEST would pocket half of the increase, while the other half would be placed in a legacy fund that would be overseen by a five-member committee appointed by the governor.
On Tuesday, Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan, representing the Utah League of Cities and Towns, endorsed Haymond's bill as "fair and favorable."
Dolan said that attorneys hired by the league to review legal issues related to Yellow Pages revenues concluded that US WEST would likely prevail in a legal challenge at either the state or federal level based on its success appealing parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Given that, Dolan said it made sense to pursue Haymond's bill with its bonus of a legacy fund for the state. Dolan also said Haymond's version saves consumers money since it spreads a monthly rate increase estimated at $2.25 to $2.68 over five years rather than setting a one-year deadline for the change.
Fund money would be used to improve telephone service in rural Utah, to create regional government services networks and to enhance telecommunication services at schools, according to US WEST.
US WEST argues that Yellow Pages revenues illegally subsidize local phone rates.
The company couldn't persuade the Public Service Commission to make that change as part of a rate case order issued in December, which raised local monthly phone rates $2.79 per month. It has appealed the commission's decision to the Utah Supreme Court while also trying to get the Legislature to change the law.
A sheet handed out by the company Tuesday states that the services that would be covered by the legacy fund are not included in US WEST's normal business plan. It also says the services are needed but not available in Utah. And it notes the investments will be made in "geographic areas that are often left out."
The legacy fund's focus overlaps two existing mechanisms for enhancing telecommunications services, however.
As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, telecommunications companies are required to help wire schools, libraries, hospitals and other social institutions under what's known as the "E Fund." And the Universal Service Fund provides money to subsidize telecommunications services in rural, hard-to-serve areas.
At least one US WEST competitor, AT&T, is concerned US WEST will use the fund to enhance its services in "ways that are anticompetitive to us."
"It's free capital investment for them that can be used to compete and earn revenues on," said Greg Allen, AT&T's government affairs vice president.
He called the legacy fund "bait" to get the Legislature to buy off on a bill that "gives US WEST $30 million a year."
Consumer groups, who planned to meet Wednesday with Gov. Mike Leavitt to discuss their concerns about the telecommunications bills, are bashing the legacy fund. "It's an increase in rates to citizens for projects that US WEST should do anyway and would do anyway," said Betsy Wolf, spokeswoman for Salt Lake Community Action Program.
Sue Ashdown, a lobbyist for local Internet Service Providers, said US WEST does have a legacy fund. "It's called additional features and second lines. The money made on second lines alone would cover the infrastructure updates," she said.