FRANKFORT — A Democratic House leader accused AT&T Thursday of "heavy-handed" practices in trying to win legislative approval of a controversial land-line telephone deregulation bill.
House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark, D-Louisville, said the telephone giant was using automated phone calls to threaten lawmakers who vote against Senate Bill 88 with "527s," a type of tax-exempt organization created primarily to influence elections.
The term is usually applied to groups that are not regulated under state or federal campaign finance laws because they do not "expressly advocate" for the election or defeat of a candidate or party. There are no upper limits on contributions to 527s and no restrictions on who may contribute.
During a discussion of the bill in the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee, Clark also said AT&T was threatening "a discharge petition" to get the bill out of the House committee and was unwilling to meet alone with consumer advocate Tom FitzGerald, who has expressed concerns about the bill and helped draft the substitute.
Patrick Turner, an attorney for AT&T, said he didn't know what Clark was talking about. He told the committee that AT&T was willing to meet with FitzGerald.
Brad A. Rateike, a spokesman for AT&T, told reporters that the company was not using robocalls or making any threats against legislators.
The primary concern about SB 88, sponsored by Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, is whether it would allow phone companies to stop offering land-line service to new customers in unprofitable parts of the state, especially in rural areas.
The bill would allow telephone companies to drop land-line services if there were comparable telephone services — such as cellular service — in an area. Areas with fewer than 5,000 land lines would be exempt.
Opponents of the bill have claimed that it could weaken oversight and erode the quality of telephone service in Kentucky. Proponents have said it is needed to increase the state's access to high-speed Internet.
A new substitute version of SB 88 discussed by the committee Thursday would not let phone companies stop offering land-line service unless an equivalently functional and viable service is available, whether that be cable or a wireless service, FitzGerald said.
Peppered with questions from legislators about whether their districts would still have land lines under the substitute bill, FitzGerald said he thought they would.
AT&T attorney Turner, however, said the substitute would take Kentucky "back to 1934."
Committee Chairman Keith Hall, D-Phelps, said he doesn't know what will happen to the bill.
He said he wanted the committee to be prepared to meet quickly to vote on the revised bill if so desired by House Democratic leadership, but he said most committee members don't want to vote on the bill.
"This bill has a lot of issues," Hall said, adding that he is satisfied that the substitute "would protect mom and pop with their land-line phones" and continue to give the state Public Service Commission jurisdiction over complaints.
"Nobody is happy, but it's a fair compromise," he said.