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WI: Lawmakers delay cable bill decision

By saveaccess
Created 04/25/2007 - 1:16pm

from: Badger Hearald [1]

Lawmakers delay cable bill decision

by Keegan Kyle
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

State Democrats blocked Republican efforts in the Assembly and Senate Tuesday to pass legislation that aims to increase cable competition in Wisconsin.

In the Democrat-controlled Senate, legislators voted along party lines to send the bill to the Joint Finance Committee, which handles bills with significant financial implications.

“We have a rule that any bill that costs more than $10,000 gets referred to the Joint Committee on Finance,” said Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson, D-Beloit, defending the motion.

Joint Finance Committee co-chair Russ Decker, D-Weston, requested the referral as a matter of protocol since he said the bill would affect the finances of local municipalities.

At its most basic level, the bill gives the state Department of Financial Institutions the power to grant statewide franchises to certain video service providers. Cable franchises — or revenue-sharing agreements — are currently handled by local governments.

Supporters of the legislation say creating a single franchise will streamline the process and encourage video providers to enter new markets, increasing competition and reducing cable rates. Opponents say it will undermine funding of local access channels — most of which are funded by franchise agreements — and worsen customer service standards.

After passing the utility committee of each legislative body last week, the bill would also extend cable consumer protection rights to satellite video providers, which have remained largely unregulated.

Although estimates vary, one report prepared by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection — which, under the bill, would oversee all complaints by video service subscribers — said the bill could cost state and local governments $312,000.

Arguing against the referral, Senate Minority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said there has been plenty of discussion and public debate since the bill’s introduction just more than a month ago.

“At this point, it seems useless to send it to committee for hearing,” Fitzgerald said. “I’m very concerned. … There’s no assurance it may ever get a hearing.”

The Joint Finance Committee, composed of eight Democrats and eight Republicans, is currently deliberating its version of the state budget, a process that usually takes several weeks. On Tuesday, it was unclear whether Decker would place the video franchise bill on the committee’s agenda before or after the budget’s completion.

In the Republican-controlled Assembly, Democratic legislators also pushed for the bill’s referral to the Joint Finance Committee, but they were unsuccessful, as legislators voted along party lines.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, and others said passage of the bill would violate state statutes because legislation expected to have a financial impact of more than $10,000 might not be approved before the state budget. The new fiscal cycle does not begin until July 1, though the state budget may be approved before that date.

“This bill is not properly before us today,” said Pocan, a member of the Joint Finance Committee. “It’s very clear that there’s a fiscal impact.”

Between several hours of caucus recess and other informal breaks, the Assembly eventually made its way through nearly 30 amendments late Tuesday night, approving some proposals but rejecting most.

After another hour of discussion, Republicans attempted to suspend procedural rules to pass the bill but were blocked by Assembly Democrats.

Before voting against the procedural suspension at nearly 11 p.m., Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, made his final remarks on the legislation.

“It’s really too complicated for us to just pass along. … We don’t know how this bill is going to affect us, even after three weeks,” Hebl said. “The work has to be done in committee. It can’t be done on the floor.

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