The House sent to Gov. Bill Haslam on Monday night a bill that eliminates a $3.50 per month discount that about 93,000 low-income Tennesseans now receive on their landline telephone bill.
The measure (SB1180) was approved by a 91-1 vote. The sole no vote came from Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, who said he approves of most provisions in the overall bill, but not the section impacting the “Lifeline” phone discount. House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said a $9.25 monthly federal discount for persons with low income will remain intact and that should be adequate.
Phone companies at one time were reimbursed by the federal government for the state-mandated discount as well, but that ended under legislation enacted by Congress last year.
The bill (SB1180), pushed by AT&T and other phone companies, was approved earlier by the Senate. It makes various other changes in state law that McCormick described as “obsolete.”
About 93,000 low-income Tennesseans would pay $3.50 per month more for basic landline phone service with passage of legislation moving quickly through the Legislature with support of AT&T, a company now losing money under the present system.
“It ends a mandate to fund social programs without being reimbursed,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, in the only reference to the provision within SB1180 during a Senate committee hearing.
The measure — known as “the AT&T bill,” though Norris pointed out that it impacts other telecommunications companies as well — was approved unanimously by the Senate Commerce Committee and awaits a Senate floor vote this evening. A House committee, meanwhile, approved the companion bill last week — sponsored by House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, unanimously without any discussion.
The provision on “Lifeline” service, intended to assure the poor have access to basic phone service, is part of a package to eliminate what McCormick called in brief remarks to the House committee “obsolete language” and “regulatory underbrush” that could “hinder investment in Tennessee.”
News release from state comptroller’s office:
It will soon be possible to report suspected cases of fraud, waste and abuse of public funds in Tennessee over the Internet. Beginning today, you may electronically alert the state Comptroller’s office about suspected government misuse of public funds by visiting: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/shared/safwa.asp
The Comptroller’s office has provided a toll-free telephone hotline for reporting fraud, waste and abuse of government funds and property since 1983. During that time, the hotline has received more than 17,000 calls.
In the 2012 legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly expanded the Advocacy for Honest and Appropriate Government Spending Act so government employees and citizens can report allegations of fraud, waste and abuse online as well.
“In this day and age, it makes sense to give people the option to send us fraud reports online,” Comptroller Wilson said. “This is another tool to help ensure that public money is being spent properly in Tennessee. I encourage people to take advantage of this new service if they have reason to suspect fraud, waste or abuse has occurred.”
Similar to the telephone hotline, the online reporting form will allow individuals to make reports anonymously if they wish. The information will be transmitted to the Comptroller’s office over a secure connection.
Individuals who make reports are asked to provide as much detail as possible about their allegations. They may also attach files with supporting documentation that may help those who review the allegations.
Information received over the Internet will be reviewed by the Comptroller’s staff and investigated or referred to the appropriate agencies or departments when warranted.
The Senate approved 26-6 Thursday legislation projected to save large telecommunications companies $16 million in access fees they now pay to small telephone exchanges and companies.
The bill, SB598, now goes to the House, where approval is also expected now that the opposing sides have agreed to a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, proclaimed the bill “consumer friendly” and “part of a long period of transition arising out of deregulation” of the telecommunications industry.
Those voting no were senators who have small telephone companies in their districts that will see a shift of funds they now receive to the bigger companies. The bill will reduce the access fee from an average of seven cents per minute to two cents per minute.
As introduced, the four-year phasing in of reductions would have begun immediately. The compromise version puts off the start of the phase-in until April 1, 2012, which Norris said would give the small companies a longer “glide path” to adjust for the decreased revenue.
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, one of those voting no, said AT&T, a leading proponent of the bill, refused to guarantee that the savings would go to benefit customers.
“We’re punishing our rural ratepayers. Their phone bills are going to go up, some of them by $10 a month,” she said.