Thursday, March 24, 2005

Part of U.S. 290 to be re-named for Ronald Reagan

After the House had voted nearly in unison for HB 789, the floor debate spiraled down to partisan politics to debate re-naming the section of U.S. 290 that's in Harris County, in Houston, as the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. The funds to change it will be paid for privately.

It was fun to watch Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) throw out amendments to name it for Ex-President Dwight Eisenhauer - a native Texan - LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson, and Stephen F. Austin. She said she also had a handful of other amendments for William Travis, Barbara Jordan, and others, but she ended up not filing those amendments - it was late and they had just debated telecom just an hour or so before. Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) had to re-assure everyone a few times that his amendment to name it for George H.W. Bush wasn't a joke. In the end, the amendment was killed, and the bill was approved.

Here's a thought: leave it to a city referendum. I think that given the area, it could get approved, but then again citizens in that area might not like a partisan lawmaker from California. But's not something that should be decided by lawmakers 150 miles away. I understand how transportation matters like that get approved, but the method just ain't right.

Maybe that method could change for when HB 55 by Rep. Kent Grusendorf comes up for floor debate next week, which would re-name the part of I-20 located in Dallas and Tarrant Counties as the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway, or if HB 110, which would re-name in the inner circle drive around the Capitol - the part of Congress between 11th and 15th streets - as the Ronald Reagan Circle, goes anywhere.

Telecom bill approved, needs one more vote to move to Senate

The telecom bill got approved on the second reading 145-to-1, with Harold Dutton casting the sole dissenting vote. Sigh. Well Rep. Robert Puente (D-San Antonio -- home of SBC) authored an amendment, which was amended by Rep. Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi), that had to do with the wireless internet services that municipalities offer to the public. In a nutshell, municipalities that currently charge for WiFi would have to charge for it in the future and municipalities that currently offer WiFi for free could not charge for it in the future, but municipalities can't change whether or not they charge. And regardless of whether or not they charge, they cannot expand the coverage since they don't want cities competing against companies. Check out the the post by Adina and for more info.

Before Luna offered this amendment, it was very entertaining to watch the exchange between Puente and Hochberg, but it paled in comparison to the exchange between Puente and Turner. Turner can be fierce and a good legislator - when he applies himself. Basically Turner and Hochberg (both from Houston) had really good arguments, but alas Puente's special interests - spelled by the letter s, b, and c - won out.

Today's Austin American-Statesman has a pretty good synopsis of the other key amendments:

  • A proposal requiring the PUC to study the Universal Service Fund, which provides millions of dollars a year in subsidies, chiefly to SBC and Verizon, to ensure phone service in rural areas. Legislators say they want to know whether the money is being spent as intended or whether the fund should be eliminated.

  • A proposal clarifying the PUC's role in handling complaints about "cramming and slamming," in which companies sign up or bill customers for service for which they didn't ask. King's bill had removed that consumer protection role from the PUC.

  • A proposal that would require Internet phone companies to inform customers whether the service includes 911 emergency service. On Tuesday, the state sued Vonage Holdings Corp. over the issue.

  • The article goes on to say that the bill may have trouble in the Senate, where Sen. Troy Fraser may oppose it.

    Fraser had submitted a rival bill that authorized the PUC to decide whether there was sufficient competition in a particular area of the state to merit deregulating rates. He's pulled that bill down for now.

    "It is becoming increasingly obvious to me that the incumbent telephone companies are not interested in competition and are only interested in raising revenue by increasing rates on the consumer and maintaining subsidies at their current levels," Fraser said.

    Well let's just put this behind us so we can enjoy Easter Sunday before gambling is tackled, which will probably be as soon as possible.

    Wednesday, March 23, 2005

    Telecom update

    Well after thoroughly studying the massive telecommunications bill, HB 789, I have some good news. No, not for you SBC. When a bill gets voted out of committee, the text of the version voted out, along with an analysis of that version, must be published - seen here. However, the analysis must accurately portray what's in the bill - otherwise it can be killed on points of order. Needless to say the analysis is wrong. I don't know if they analyzed one of the many committee substitutes that were presented to the committee, but the clerk's an idiot and royally screwed up on this one.

    Since I don't like this bill, and it has many points of order on which to kill the bill, I might just do that. Well, not me personally, but I want to get the ball rolling on it. I would think that a bill like this wouldn't even get out of committee, but since SBC supports it - which means that CWA blindly supports it simply because SBC is unionized, regardless of the bill's impacts on, say, every person who owns a home phone - that means the bill will usually go through. The Republicans don't have enough guts to stand up to SBC, and the Democrats don't have a spine - read: they won't stand up to labor on this, even though this has nothing to do with labor but with consumer protection. Sheesh. So that's why I want to act on this one.

    Anyways, now the fun part. The bill does this:

    • Grants phone companies full deregulation on January 1, 2008. But they must first lower the rates for long distance intrastate (meaning within the state) phone calls to equal long distance interstate (meaning between the states) phone calls. Right now a phone call from one Texas city to another costs more than a phone call from one Texas city to another across the country, simply because intrastate rates are so high (this has a lot to do with the fees that Texas charges). So if companies make their rates for intrastate long distance phone calls equal to interstate rates by January 1, 2008, then they can charge whatever they want, without any caps on rates. Yeah I don't fully get the logic on that one either.

    • Many consumer protections such as those against "cramming" are eliminated. Cramming happens when a phone company tries to cram many services together into a small number of fees, but increasing the fees. This is usually done without the customer's knowledge or consent.

    • In perhaps the sneakiest maneuver, the bill replaces "customer household" with "customer" when dealing with lifeline services, which are assistance programs to lower income folks that usually cut their bill in half. To qualify for a lifeline program, you have to qualify for public assistance programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, etc.

      But the change doesn't seem like a big deal, right? Well, it is since it makes the customer have to be the recipient him- or herself of public assistance programs. But parents whose children are on Medicaid usually don't get Medicaid themselves; it's just their kids who get it. Same goes for Food Stamps. So, under HB 789, since the name of customer on a phone bill doesn't match up with the recipient of public assistance program, the household won't qualify for lifeline programs. Sneaky, sneaky.

    • This version does not ban municipal wireless. However, Phil King is interested in introducing an amendment tomorrow morning to do so. Apparently he was just hoping to avoid public debate over it.

    • Currently, dominant carriers are required to give discounts to libraries, educational institutions, and other providers of distance learning. This bill will discontinue that.

    The bill does a lot of other things, such as no longer capping hotel and motel calls at 50 cents a piece and "bundling" now-basic services like call waiting, but it's massive. If you want the full low-down, then please e-mail me.

    Monday, March 21, 2005

    HB 789 to be heard Wednesday

    Included amoung the ridiculous amount of bills to be heard Wednesday is HB 789. The Calendars Committee met at 6 tonight (around 30 minutes ago), and they placed it on the calendar for two days from now.

    I'll get my synopsis up here soon, promise.