Media Watch: The Incredible Disappearing Telecom Committee
Two years after Lege passed sweeping reorganization of competitive landscape for delivering telecommunication services to homes, community groups wonder what happened to committee that was supposed to monitor law's impact
Two years after the Texas Legislature passed a sweeping reorganization of the competitive landscape for delivering telecommunication services to homes, community groups are wondering what happened to a much-anticipated committee that was supposed to monitor the law's impact.
The controversial bill, Senate Bill 5, approved in the second special session after a ferocious and costly lobbying battle between the phone and cable industries, included among its provisions the creation of the Telecommunications Competitiveness Legislative Oversight Committee, a council of legislators (and the chief executive of the Public Utility Counsel) that would hold public hearings, evaluate the law's repercussions, and report back to the Legislature by the end of 2006. House Speaker Tom Craddick and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst dutifully issued press releases announcing their selections for the committee and wishing the members godspeed. "I have confidence in [the committee members'] abilities to find recommendations to improve our telecommunications laws and monitor the implementation of this historic legislation," Craddick declared in his press release.
And then nothing. The committee never met. There was no public testimony. No report was issued. "It was something that we were all anticipating," said Rondella Hawkins, manager of telecommunications and regulatory affairs for the city of Austin. "They were going to look at some of the key areas of the law." SB 5, which set a national precedent, altered the basics of the telecom business in Texas, allowing phone companies into the television game by eliminating franchise agreements with local municipalities and creating a "one-stop" state franchise system. By the letter of the law, the committee was charged with exploring several specific and controversial aspects of the legislation, including "the fairness of rates, the quality of service, and the effect of regulation on the normal forces of competition." It would also monitor right-of-way access fees, franchise fees, and the "continuation of public, educational, and governmental access channels."
Supporters of public education and government channels already fear that SB 5 might decimate funding for public programming. Although the bill calls for providers to continue to set aside channels for local programming, it doesn't guarantee funding for those services. Public access programs in San Antonio and Houston are already facing potentially drastic cuts. "Some of this might have come out if there had been a study," said Stefan Wray, communications director for Public Access Community Television in Austin. The timing demanded by the law was critical, Wray said. If the committee had met and filed its report by the mandated deadline, there would have been time to present legislation for the current session. Instead, it is unlikely any issues will even be addressed for at least another year, at the earliest, and any legislation must wait until 2009. "It was a missed opportunity," Wray said.
Nevertheless, Craddick, who expressed his "confidence" that the committee would tackle the big issues, didn't sound overly concerned that it never even bothered to meet. In a written statement issued through his press secretary, Craddick said, "Whether or not the committee met and completed a report is something I have left up to the discretion of those appointed members."
In December 2005, Craddick appointed Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, chairman of the House Regulated Industries Committee and one of the key sponsors of SB 5, to co-chair the oversight committee. Contacted on the House floor, King expressed surprise that anyone was interested in the committee. "Senate Bill 5 has been moving along flawlessly," King said, "so we never felt the need to meet."
But SB 5 didn't ask for the chairman's opinion, critics note, nor allow for any "discretion" about completing its tasks. The law mandates that not only should the committee meet, it should have filed a report by the end of 2006, and then biannually, to satisfy the public that telecom issues were being adequately and fairly addressed. King, who helped craft SB 5, said he didn't realize the law directed the committee to file a report by a specific date. "It calls for a report?" he said. "We probably need to amend it and strike the report; that wasn't really the intent." (An aide for the committee co-chair, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, did not respond to repeated queries about the committee.)
The committee language was included in the bill, King said, as a "safety," in case the House and Senate needed to resolve issues. With the law purportedly running smoothly and his Regulated Industries Committee dealing with any issues, "the need [for the committee] never came up," he said.
Not everyone would agree with that.
"Going smoothly? According to whom?" asked Sharon Strover, a professor in UT-Austin's School of Communication and director of the school's Telecommunications and Information Policy Institute. SB 5 represented a "whole new legislative arena, with a potentially powerful impact on communities and local access and how we think about the community's role in local media," Strover said. "It would have been nice to get that data."