California legislators put overconfident AT&T's wireline exit bill on ice for now

26 May 2016 by Steve Blum
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At least one side came prepared.

AT&T’s campaign to rewrite California law and yank wireline service out of less lucrative rural and inner city communities is in legislative limbo, at least temporarily. The assembly appropriations committee met yesterday to consider assembly bill 2395, which was written by AT&T and carried on its behalf by assemblyman Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley).

I wasn’t in Sacramento for it, but I watched the webcast and it appeared that AT&T and assembly members friendly to its cause were not prepared for the opposition that arose during the meeting, nor the increasingly skeptical responses from committee members that it appeared to generate.

Low did not show up for the hearing to speak on behalf of the bill, nor did anyone step up to fill the two brief speaking slots allotted to supporters. That left the two designated opposing speakers free to make an unchallenged case against the bill. Representatives from the Communications Workers of America, the primary union representing AT&T employees, and TURN, a consumer utility advocacy group, summed up the reasons to spike it, including the impact on jobs, the likelihood that AT&T would leave unprofitable customers either stranded or stuck with expensive and inferior service, and the end of any meaningful oversight of broadband and phone service by California regulators.

Next came a long line of people who, in keeping with standard procedure at the capitol, simply stated their name and organisation and declared their opposition to AB 2395. They were followed by an equally long line of supporters, including an AT&T staff lobbyist – far more junior than the alpha lobbyist sent to the last committee hearing.

Then the questions started coming from committee members. It was a long way from being an inquisition, but there were sharper than usual questions about the California Public Utilities Commission’s ability to oversee AT&T turbocharged exit from traditional telephone company responsibilities and regulations. Since Low wasn’t there, the AT&T lobbyist answered from the back of the room. He be seemed to be working hard to give the impression that this bill was really somebody else’s idea, and he just thought it was a good one. You know, like maybe he was looking for the cafeteria and walked into the hearing by mistake. One of his answers drew audible derision from the audience, forcing committee chair Lorena Gonzalez (D – San Diego) to quiet the room.

She wrapped it up by moving AB 2395 to the suspense file, an apparently pre-planned move. That’s a parliamentary maneuver that effectively puts the bill on ice until after legislators agree on a state budget in June. Assuming nothing unusual happens – not a completely safe bet, but a reasonable one – legislative leaders will then meet behind closed doors and decide whether or not to allow the bill to go to a vote by the full assembly. At this point, the betting is that they’ll greenlight it. Then, if it gets a simple majority vote on the assembly floor, AB 2395 goes over to the senate, likely for consideration in August.

Another pointed, broadband-specific hearing was cancelled at the capitol. Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), the chair of the assembly utilities and commerce committee and a key player behind the push for AB 2395, withdrew his request to the joint legislative audit committee for an investigation of the California Advanced Services Fund and the California Emerging Technology Fund.