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Telecom Bill Passes House, But Not Without Dutton's Opposition

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) is known for his deep baritone voice and his skilled oratory.

When he rose on the House floor Sunday to speak against SB 21, the telecommunications bill, both the voice and oratory were in rare form.

Dutton began his objection saying it was obvious to him what was happening on the House floor regarding SB 21, since the chair of the House Committee on Regulated Industries (Rep. Phil King) told committee members before they voted SB 21 out of committee that the committee would report the bill out, Calendars would meet, and the bill would be set for the House floor on Sunday "like everything had already been decided."

Dutton added, "The only thing he didn't tell you was what the vote count would be today," saying he was certain King knew the outcome, "Just like I do."

Saying he was "not going to lay on the tracks today," Dutton said he did, however, want to take the opportunity to tell fellow members what he thinks of the bill. "SBC has come with more promises" of jobs and investments," said Dutton, and the company says those jobs and investments will come if the legislature gives SBC "greater and greater freedom from competition."

"Government, help me" is the cry of SBC, said Dutton. He said SBC says, "We can't make it without special rules, and government intervention is what we want against our competitors."

The Houston Democrat pointed out that in 1997, SBC said they needed more pricing flexibility. "Otherwise, they said, 'The sun won't shine.'" In 1999, SBC took "another bite of the apple," said Dutton, promising, "jobs and investments are right around the corner.

"SBC has hauled those same old promises back to the House floor today. And we are still buying it. We are putting Texans' cash into the pockets of corporations rather than taking care of the teachers and taxpayers."

Calling SB 21 a "hand-over-fist giveaway," Dutton suggested the bill should be named SBC 21 instead of SB 21. He said the voices of many - cable operators, hundreds of mayors and local officials and others - have not been heard.

Dutton said the bill establishes a "Don't mess with the bully in the backyard" mentality. "Take on a poor little conglomerate like SBC and you take on the Legislature as well."

The substantive problems in the bill "are legion," said the Houston lawmaker, "but they wont' go away."

Consensus is that any voice that objects is not heard, he said, and many have told him, "Don't bother." While those people may have surrendered, said Dutton, "I have to bother because I represent thousands of Texans," who sent him to Austin to provide an education that allows today's children to "pull themselves up from poverty, to allow them to fend for themselves." Dutton said he came to Austin to "see to the education of our children."

Helping pay for that education is partly the responsibility of Texas businesses, said Dutton, but many have found loopholes to shirk that responsibility. "One of the first to climb through was SBC," he said, avoiding paying their fair share. He accused SBC of already having taken "millions of dollars out of classrooms in Texas."

Dutton again pointed out that he came to Austin for a special session that the governor earmarked for cutting property taxes and "fixing" public schools. "We must first see to the 'haves' before we can see to the 'have-nots,'" he said.

The Houston Democrat said he read where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said he would not allow legislation in the Senate on final passage "unless and until" the tax and school reform bills are passed and sent to the governor. "I hope he sticks to that," he said, since it appears the only thing the legislature can agree on "is a special interest handout to SBC and Verizon.

"I'm going to vote no one more time. I don't expect you to follow me, but I'd sure be proud to have you along."

King closed on his bill saying he is convinced the bill will "further competition, bring new services, new products, better prices, better service" and that it will "create thousands and thousands of new jobs - good jobs - and that it will create billions of dollars in investments." He said he is confident in five years that the state will be able to look back at this issue and if it does not do what he anticipates, the legislature can "tweak" it to ensure that it is good for both consumers and business in Texas.

Citing a newspaper report today saying rates would go down for consumers, Dutton asked King if he could tell his constituents and all Texans that their cable and video service rates are going to go down.

"Good economic policy means that if we have competition in cable, competition in video...that it will produce lower prices," responded King. He said he expects consumers to see better prices "probably by this time next year," adding that within the next year to 18 months, Texans should see a "lot of competition and change."

King said if the market continues as it is, Texas should see increased competition "year after year." He predicted this would be like what has happened in recent years in local and long distance telephone service. It took some consumers two years to benefit from the results of competition, others four years. "But I really think this is a road to progress and a road to take us in the right direction."

Dutton closed his comments by saying that if the legislature is going to keep letting "certain companies put their hands deeper and deeper into the pockets of Texans," he wants to at least be able to tell people their bills are going down.