New Jersey Cable Deregulation Bill On Hold

CBS NY — Tuesday, March 22, 2011

TRENTON, NJ (AP / CBSNewYork) - The state Senate delayed a vote on a bill to deregulate cable television and telephone services following an aggressive campaign by a coalition of consumer groups, which said the legislation would lead to significant rate increases for landline telephone and basic cable television users.

Listen to WCBS 880's Levon Putney with an opponent of the bill [New Jersey Citizen Action's Jackie Cornell-Bechelli]: To the left, click the "Q" (QuickTime) or   >  to play, or download the 1.3MB mp3 file, of this news segment (approx.1 minute).

Telephone and cable companies operating in New Jersey support the measure, which was fast-tracked through the Assembly and was on its way to the governor's desk before hitting a roadblock Monday. Consumer advocates wrote to all 40 state senators on Friday, urging them to vote against it.

"There are very significant issues that both caucuses realize are problematic," said Sen. Bob Smith, a Middlesex County Democrat who said he would offer amendments to the bill to build in consumer protections.

Ev Liebman, director of organizing and advocacy for New Jersey Citizen Action, called the bill sweeping anti-consumer legislation that could drive up landline phone rates 50 percent or more, a figure based on experiences on other states that have adopted telecommunications deregulations.

Jackie Cornell-Bechelli, also with New Jersey Citizen Action, says the bill would drop certain consumer protections.

"[Under current regulations], you couldn't charge one thing in Newark, and a different thing in Camden, and a different thing in Cherry Hill. You couldn't charge different prices in different towns," Cornell-Bechelli told WCBS 880 reporter Levon Putney.

She says customer could lose the right to get a credit when service is lost.

"We never said this bill this bill is 100 percent bad - every square inch of it. We just have concerns with a lot of the consumer protection issues," says Cornell-Bichelli.

A coalition of two dozen consumer groups called Don't Hang Up on New Jersey welcomed the delay and said it would use the postponement "to further bring to light the significant problems with this bill."

The Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 66-7 with 4 abstentions last month, two weeks after it was introduced. It had support of Republicans and Democrats.

A Senate co-sponsor, Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr., described the bill as "a work in progress right now."

Verizon NJ President Dennis Bone said the bill would remove outdated rules. He argued previously that landline rates had risen 84 percent over the past three years with regulations in place, and said Verizon had no intention of raising rates if regulations were lifted.

Verizon NJ is one of the state's biggest lobbyists, having laid out more than $935,000 last year, more than all but the teachers' union, according to an Election Law Enforcement Commission report released this month.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democratic prime sponsor, agreed to pull the bill from Monday's agenda once its fate became uncertain. He said, however, that the need to modernize the state's regulatory system remains and the bill could be brought up again at the next Senate voting session later this spring.

Smith said hundreds of senior citizens and other residents contacted lawmakers' offices in recent weeks to voice concern. Recent newspaper editorials panned the measure for weakening consumer protections.

The League of Municipalities, which represents the interests of towns and cities, also opposed the bill.

Brian Wahler, the mayor of Piscataway and chairman of the league's telecommunications commission, said the bill relieves cable companies of the obligation to broadcast town meetings live and eliminates a provision that they wire all municipal buildings, libraries and emergency-response facilities for free.

The bill also has the potential to allow cable companies to underserve rural areas of the state, Wahler said.

Smith said his amendments would address those issues while shedding burdensome, outdated regulations.

Smith said he also would amend the bill to keep in place the ability for consumers to file complaints with the Board of Public Utilities over service disruptions and other problems. The BPU received roughly 15,000 complaints about cable service or billing last year, he said.

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