published Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Haslam gets bill to end discount for landline phones

The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in downtown Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — The House gave final approval on Monday to legislation pushed by an AT&T-led coalition that effectively eliminates Tennessee's Lifeline program, which provides a $3.50 monthly credit to 93,000 low-income Tennessee households on their landline telephone bill.

Members voted 91-1 for the bill, which previously passed the Senate, and it now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for his consideration.

The bill will have no impact on an identically named federal Lifeline program, which covers both landlines and cellphones for hundreds of thousands of low-income people.

The state Lifeline program is funded by telecommunications companies. The bill also makes several other changes benefiting telephone companies under "market regulation," basically freeing them up from most oversight by the Tennessee Regulatory Commission.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, D-Memphis, noted that no mention was made in the bill's presentation about the elimination of the state Lifeline program, a program he said he supports.

"I'm going to have to vote against the bill," Hardaway said.

Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the bill's sponsor, responded the elimination of the Lifeline program was "an important point that you've raised."

McCormick said telecom companies were never reimbursed by the state in the program.

"So that was a program that was paid for by the companies ... and also there's a federal program that gives them, I believe, $9.25 a month to either get cell service or landline service. And the federal government pays the companies back," he said.

The Federal Communications Commission "has determined ... it [federal program] is enough to make sure folks have phones who need them," he said.

The bill's fiscal note did not address the current cost of the program. The monthly discount of $3.50 for 93,000 households over 12 months comes to $3.9 million.

The program was implemented by the former state Public Service Commission years ago out of excess profits earned by AT&T under the system of regulation then in place. That regulatory method was later changed substantially and under the bill is eliminated entirely.

In other action Monday:

• Sen. Mike Bell, R-Rice-ville, delayed floor action on his "knife rights" legislation that would allow Tennesseans to legally carry switchblades and possibly swords under a "knife rights" bill. The measure also would pre-empt local governments ability to ban them.

"Some people see this bill as cutting edge," quipped Bell, saying he wanted to "give them time to work their way" through the bill.

• Senators voted 32-0 to eliminate Tennessee's decades-old Hazardous Chemical Right To Know Law, which requires employers to notify workers about potentially injurious workplace chemicals. Employers still are bound to follow federal guidelines. The bill has not started moving in the House.

• Senators approved the "Safe Harbor Act," which is intended to encourage pregnant women addicted to narcotics to seek treatment, on a 31-1 vote.

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, the bill's sponsor, said it "provides an incentive for a woman to do the right thing for her baby" and addresses a "growing epidemic" among pregnant women.

If an expectant mother seeks and remains on treatment, the state's Department of Children's Services would not file a petition to terminate parental rights based solely on prenatal drug use. The bill comes before a House subcommittee today.

• Board members of state-chartered credit unions would be able to vote to pay themselves compensation under a bill that passed the Senate on a 32-0 vote. The bill remains in the House.

• Senators also unanimously approved legislation requiring incoming college students living on campus to get vaccinated for meningitis unless they object based on medical or religious grounds. The bill is still in the House.

n Senators also approved 31-0 legislation that would override local school districts' ability to reject home-schooled students from participating on public school sports teams if the student meets Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association requirements. Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said only about 35 of the state's 100-plus districts currently allow home-schooled students to participate.

• Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron, of Murfreesboro, plans to move ahead today in committee with a bill that would let student photo identification issued by state higher education institutions be used for voting.

The bill would also make it clear that public library cards cannot be used for voting identification purposes. Courts ruled last year they could.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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