Saturday, April 11, 2009
- by Rep. Eric Watson
The Commerce Committee considered the Market Regulation Act of 2009 this week, which is legislation brought forth by AT&T Tennessee that would deregulate much of AT&T's operations. After months of negotiations representatives from AT&T, the cable TV industry, the phone industry, and the Tennessee Regulatory Authority seem to have reached a compromise. House Bill 1698 was delayed for one week in the Commerce Committee to allow the committee to review the complex amendments, but appears headed for passage.
Currently, AT&T is regulated by the TRA with a price cap on telephone and other services because of the lack of competition in most areas of the state. AT&T officials now say that there is sufficient competition to do away with the caps, and deregulate the company. TRA representatives were originally concerned that although competition had expanded in many parts of the state, rural areas did not have the same options and would therefore suffer from increased rates.
A series of negotiations have ironed out those details, and provisions were added that state that companies (like AT&T) must prove to the TRA that they are competitive in rural areas in order to deregulate. They also must wait one year to start that process. In addition, TRA maintains complaint authority over residential complaints, easing the TRA's concerns with the original form of the legislation regarding TRA's jurisdiction.
TRA Chairman Eddie Robinson testified before the committee, saying that the new provisions in the bill adjusts the level of regulation to the marketplace, and moves the TRA from price regulation to "light" regulation. He also testified that with the new provisions regarding rural customers, TRA was comfortable with the new version of the bill. He stressed that TRA will present a report to the legislature yearly on the status of competition, so that the legislature may act if it feels the outcome is detrimental to rural Tennesseans.
The bill said the proposal can lower rates and level the playing field, and would maintain Tennessee's pro-business and pro-job reputation. In addition, the state could see more companies relocating here, investing, and creating jobs with the passage of the legislation.
The Republican-sponsored House Bill 779 hit a roadblock in the Elections Subcommittee this week, as the bill failed on a tie vote with all three Democrats on the subcommittee voting to kill the bill. The seemingly straightforward and common-sense legislation would have made it easier for our troops overseas to vote by allowing them to send absentee ballots electronically. Republicans were outraged, arguing that we should do all we can to ensure the votes of our brave men and women serving overseas count.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that one-third of states do not allow enough time for overseas voters, listing Tennessee as one of 16 states that sent ballots after the date necessary for voters to meet deadlines. Last year, at least seven states enacted legislation to authorize some form of electronic transmission.
In case you missed it...
The House Calendar and Rules Committee passed House Bill 815 and scheduled it for a floor vote next week. Currently, it is a misdemeanor to point a laser pointer with the intent to place a law enforcement officer in fear of serious injury or death who is performing official duties. This bill extends the law to cover firefighters, EMTs, or any other emergency management personnel.
House Bill 738, the Tennessee Energy Conservation Endorsement Act of 2009, was passed out of the Utilities and Banking Subcommittee this week. The bill classifies the "engaging in energy conservation programs and measures that conserve, as well as distribute, electrical energy and supplies of natural gas, oil and other fuels" as a proper and essential function of public utilities. The legislation also authorizes the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to develop energy conservation programs. The bill will next be heard in the full House Commerce Committee.
The Health and Human Resources Committee passed House Bill 1552, which would prohibit universal mental health or socio-emotional screening on children unless a parent or guardian gives consent. The bill also stipulates certain limited situations where consent from a guardian is not needed such as a court order, an emergency situation, or testing done as a result of a disaster or epidemic. The bill now faces the House Calendar and Rules Committee.
House Bill 962, which would allow licensed carry permit holders to carry firearms into restaurants, passed on the House floor this week with a vote of 70 to 26. The legislation does have a provision that prohibits the firearms in restaurants after 11 p.m., and also allows individual restaurants to post signs stating they do not allow firearms.
The House has, for many years, published a weekly Legislative Manual that contains every bill number and a short summary of each piece of legislation, and made one available to all 99 members. Because the cost for producing the books is $90,000, and because the information is available online, Republicans proposed House Bill 2357, legislation that would end the publication for cost-saving reasons. The bill passed out of the State Subcommittee this week, and was amended to clarify that any member of the House will be provided one upon request only.
Legislation that would prohibit sending or reading text messages while driving cleared the Transportation Committee on Tuesday. House Bill 107 will now move onto the Budget Subcommittee, where it will likely pass due to the positive fiscal note, or an increase in revenue. Transportation Committee members discussed the possibility that texting while driving fell under the "distracted driving" statute, but ultimately determined that the legislation would clarify the law and allow law enforcement some discretion.
House Bill 1911 cleared the House K-12 Subcommittee this week, and will make it easier for military children to transfer between schools. The bill adds Tennessee to the Interstate Compact on Education Opportunity for Military Children, which assists children of active military personnel in making a smooth transition from school to school. The Republican sponsor said Tennessee has about 26,000 students who would be affected by the legislation. Fourteen states are already part of the compact, which covers issues ranging from transfer of records to inclusion in extracurricular activities.