State of emergency: Gridlocked lawmakers threaten consumer oversight over 911

When the Waldo Canyon fire blazed toward homes in 2012, the local 911 service issued a reverse call telling residents it was time to flee. But an elderly couple didn’t receive the warning and died in the fire. Their landline wasn’t part of the reverse-dialing system.

Advocates of a bill that would maintain consumer oversight for 911 services, and telecom in general, pointed to that tragedy in an effort to win the votes of Senate Republicans.

Senate State Affairs Chair Ray Scott, R- Grand Junction, led the kill committee in voting against the bill, which he said was not needed because lawmakers deregulated telecom last year.

“I’m thinking, if they’re already doing it why would we put a redundant law in place?” he told The Colorado Independent. “How many layers do we need?”

Bill Levis, the former director of the Office of Consumer Counsel, acknowledged that the OCC’s focus on telecom has decreased in the last decade from 40 percent of its work to just 5 percent.

“You don’t need to remove telecom. It’s happening naturally,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s critical as we transition into next generation 911 that consumers have a voice in front of the Public Utilities Commission.”

In 2018 the Public Utilities Commission will be responsible for deciding if the deregulation of telecom in Colorado has created more competition and better services or if it has left consumers, particularly in difficult-to-reach rural areas, in the lurch. Likewise, every phone-user pays a small fee to fund 911 services, which also need to be cleared by the PUC. Advocates say they want the consumer voice represented by the OCC in both cases so that ratepayers get the best services at a fair price as technology evolves.

Democrats on the kill committee asked extensive questions of Levis, trying to hammer home the importance of including telecom in the purview of an office that also goes head-to-head with big companies over issues related to energy and agriculture.

Those efforts succeeded in frustrating the Republican members of the committee, who accused Democrats of stalling, but not in changing their minds. Ultimately, the bill went down on party lines.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he voted against the bill in favor of his own alternative measure which would continue the OCC past its 2015 sunset but remove telecom.

Consumer advocates were infuriated by the vote and by the last-minute approach to continuing an office that has saved consumers $1.7 billion.

“This is not acceptable,”said Kelli Fritts, an advocate for the AARP.  “We’re here on the final three days of the session fighting to get a decent OCC bill that encompasses all the things they can and should do.”

Fritts said that along with other consumer advocates, she’s shifting her attention to Sonnenberg’s OCC bill, which has yet to be heard or passed by the other chamber.

“Hopefully the House includes some form of telecom coverage the Senate can go along with,” Fritts said. “At the bare-bones minimum, it has to be 911. There’s still a huge need for that. It has to be in there.”

Photo by Jeremy Brooks.