“Political Gambit”

Nathan Stubbs at the Independent has a wrap-up story on the original trio of bills that propose to neuter or repeal the “Local Government Fair Competition Act.” He focuses in on Joel Robideaux who is happily fronting the bills in the House.

The story highlights heroic dimensions as the unassuming first term representative takes on not one but two telecommunications Goliaths in defense of home and hearth. But it hints, as well, at intricate behind the scenes maneuvering:

Passed in 2004, the 21-page law was touted as a compromise agreement between LUS and private telecom providers, enacting detailed guidelines and scrutiny over any public entity’s bid to offer telecommunications services to the general public. Last year, BellSouth used the law to file a lawsuit that tied up LUS’ bond ordinance in court. LUS and city leaders felt burned, claiming BellSouth was underhanded about its intentions during the bill’s negotiations. BellSouth Rep. John Williams did not return calls for comment for this story…

Cox Communications spokeswoman Sharon Kleinpeter says her company was a bit taken aback by Robideaux’s bills….

The bills prompted the scheduling of a pre-session meeting with all interested parties to talk about possible compromises — a meeting that was abruptly canceled late last week. Even before that development, Robideaux wasn’t holding out too much hope that everyone would come to a friendly agreement.

“They had these meetings before the [Local Government Fair Competition Act], and Lafayette thought it would be allowed to progress, and that wasn’t the case. So I’m not sure what could come out of this meeting that everybody would feel like, ‘OK, good, we know exactly what’s going to happen after this point.’ But, I’m an optimist, so we’ll see.”

You begin to see an emerging strategy perking out when Robideaux nonchalantly suggests that the bill that would make many of the restrictions apply equally to the parties is pretty much common sense–for any entity that wants a shot at government money or subsidies:

HB 244, would require any private telecommunications company that receives public funds to adhere to all of the regulations in the Local Government Fair Competition Act. Telecom companies have received government assistance in the past, in the form of tax incentives and grants for opening new offices and expanding services into rural areas. Robideaux won’t be surprised if BellSouth or Cox look to capitalize on federal funds or tax incentives now being offered to spark rebuilding in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“If they see this as an opportunity to put down some infrastructure in the state, which is not necessarily a bad thing, [under this bill] they would then be subjected to the same rules and regulations that any other governmental entity would be, since they’re receiving government money to do it,” says Robideaux.

What a fun little trap; it is a classic double bind: Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

While Robideaux lays it out as a common sense measure, the bill appears to be a long shot.

A long shot? Sure. And so? It’d be fun to pass it, no doubt, but the real reason to put it out there has to be to set the stage for what should be the real argument: Just how FAIR is the fair competition act anyway? After all if it is fair, and if it actually does establish a “level playing field” which is all the incumbents piously say the want, why shouldn’t the law’s restrictions apply equally to any publicly subsidized entity? Cox’s Sharon Kleinpeter unwisely took the bait:

If enacted, it would open the door to placing unprecedented government auditing and financing restraints on private telecom companies. Cox’s Kleinpeter says public and private businesses are different animals that can’t be covered by blanket guidelines.

“I think you’re comparing apples and oranges, and those two things could not ever be put in the same basket,” she says. “All of us in business have to follow rules and guidelines from the FCC, the SEC and anti-trust laws.”

Really, all you can do is bluster. And bluster is just not very convincing.

You get a little hint of a further strategy in the following (LPF analysis here) remarks:

The triple-threat political gambit could not come at a more auspicious time for LUS. Last Wednesday, the city-parish council approved the public utility’s latest bond ordinance for the project, starting a 30-day window for anyone to issue another legal challenge to the bond ordinance. The benefit of having a fresh debate on the Fair Competition Act opening at the same time as the window for a new legal challenge to LUS isn’t lost on Robideaux, who smiles and says, “It just happened to work out that way.”

Nah, it didn’t just happen to work out that way. The ball is in play.

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