FRANKFORT — A controversial bill to deregulate local phone service in much of Kentucky, known as "the AT&T bill," faces problems in the state House.
Since a House committee approved House Bill 152 last Thursday, eight amendments have been filed to change it on the House floor, and House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Wednesday that he could not predict the bill's chances if it gets a House floor vote .
"I think the more people think about that bill, the more concerned they get," said Stumbo, who has opposed the measure for years.
The House bill's uncertain future prompted a Senate committee to approve its own version of the proposal Wednesday, although the sponsor said he had no concern that the measure might be in trouble in the House.
"We want to be sure it's fully discussed over there," said Sen. Paul Hornback, R-Shelbyville, who predicted that the full Senate will vote on Senate Bill 3, his version of the legislation, early next week.
Both chambers must approve the same bill before it can be sent to the governor and become law.
Earlier this week, Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said he understood that "vultures are flying over" the bill in the House, so the Senate wanted to start acting on its own proposal.
His comments came after Senate leaders moved the bill from the Senate Economic Development and Tourism Committee to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
Hornback said the switch was made because the economic development committee would not meet again until next Thursday because chairwoman Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, was out of state with a sick relative. Wednesday was the 11th day of the 30-day legislative session.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved Senate Bill 3 Wednesday on a 9-1 vote. One member, Sen. Albert Robinson, R-London, did not vote.
The proposal has been debated in the state legislature for the last four years.
It would largely strip the Kentucky Public Service Commission of its oversight of phone service and end the obligation of major phone carriers AT&T, Windstream and Cincinnati Bell to provide basic land-line phone service in urban and suburban areas, including Lexington, Georgetown, Richmond, Nicholasville and Frankfort.
The companies instead could provide phone service through a wireless plan or an Internet protocol-based technology, which converts voices into a digital signal that travels over the Internet and then is reconverted at the other end.
Rural customers — those living in phone exchanges with fewer than 15,000 homes — could ask to stick with their land-line phones, but the companies would not be required to extend that service to new developments in rural areas.
Tom FitzGerald, a consumer advocate and environmental attorney who opposes the legislation, said customers who move outside of urban areas could lose the right to basic stand-alone service unless their new residence has a land-line installed by the current carrier.
He also said 11,000 customers in urban areas are at risk of losing their stand-alone basic service and would be required to accept bundled services they can't afford.
FitzGerald said the state legislature should wait to consider deregulation of the phone industry until the Federal Communications Commission finalizes rules regarding the transition to digital communications.
Hornback and Hood Harris, president of AT&T Kentucky, told the committee that residents in rural areas with a traditional phone would not lose it. They also said the legislation would be an economic development boon for the state, allowing phone companies to invest more heavily in broadband Internet technology.
Gov. Steve Beshear agreed.
He said in a statement that he applauds Hornback and Rep. Rick Rand, D-Bedford, for sponsoring the legislation in their chambers.
"I believe the current bill strikes a strong balance between providing consumer protection and creating economic development opportunities that result from robust broadband accessibility in communities all across the commonwealth," he said.
Beshear urged the House to "pass it quickly."
In previous legislative sessions, the Senate approved the bill but the House did not act on it, citing consumer-protection concerns.
AT&T has 18 lobbyists registered for this year's General Assembly. The major phone carriers reported spending $202,858 last year to lobby the legislature and $18,350 in political action committee donations to state politicians, mostly legislators.