The Star-Ledger

N.J. Senate Stalls Action On Bill To Deregulate Telecommunications Industry

The Star-Ledger — Tuesday, March 22, 2011

By Matt Friedman and Megan DeMarco / Statehouse Bureau

TRENTON — The battle over a bill to deregulate New Jersey's telecommunications industry pitted some of the state's biggest lobbyists against each other — and they pulled out all the stops.

Consumer advocates, led by the influential AARP, made more than 20,000 phone calls to state senators in an effort to oppose the bill. Verizon, the state's second biggest spender on lobbying last year, launched its own campaign to push it. Both sides advertised on radio and in newspapers, and lawmakers were bombarded with handwritten letters and petitions.

It was all supposed to come to a head Monday.

But instead of passing the bill and sending it to Gov. Chris Christie, the Senate sent it back to the drawing board.

"It took a lot of hard efforts just to get the bill held up today," said Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler, representing the League of Municipalities. "Two and a half weeks ago we were told this was going to sail through the Senate."

When introduced in January, the measure (S2664) sparked a firestorm of criticism from groups that argue loosening regulations would leave consumers vulnerable and raise phone bills. The League of Municipalities opposes it because it may harm public access television and remove mandates that cable companies provide internet in municipal buildings.

Verizon and other companies argue the bill would modernize the law, make the state more competitive and attract business.

On Friday, Verizon New Jersey President Dennis Bone told Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) basic telephone rates would not rise for two years after the bill was signed.

Sweeney said he'll probably take up the bill in April. "There's not a rush to get it done," he said. "But we do need to modernize our regulatory system and we're looking to do that."

The bill faces changes. State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) drew up major amendments last week that would restore the Board of Public Utilities' role in regulating basic cable and phone service and keep a requirement to give towns public access channels that can broadcast live.

Bone said he plans to continue advocating for the legislation.

"Given the economic challenges in New Jersey, we firmly believe this is a solid piece of legislation that will lead to economic growth and new investment in the state," he said.

A spokesman for Verizon, which spent $935,252 on lobbying last year, would not say how much was spent advocating for the bill.

The Communications Workers of America, which represents 2,500 Verizon workers in New Jersey and fears the bill would make it easier for the firm to sell its infrastructure to less stable companies, spent about $125,000 fighting it, spokesman Bob Master said. AARP spent about $50,000 communicating with members to fight it, said spokesman Douglas Johnston. New Jersey Citizen Action hand-delivered more than 1,000 letters. "We have been working like the Tazmanian devil to get the message out to consumers," Johnston said.

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