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April 29, 1998     (512) 463-0300

Legislators Discuss Future of Telecommunications Industry Rights-Of-Way in Texas Cities

EL PASO - As part of a series of public hearings held across the state, legisladores met in El Paso on Wednesday, April 29, to gain local perspective on telecommunications issues and needs. The Legislative Committee on Municipal Franchise Agreements for Telecommunications Utilities, comprised of both senators and representatives, gathered testimony in order to begin drafting legislation that would propose a standardized franchise fee for all telecommunications companies. The bill would, among other things, charge cable and phone companies a reasonable amount in rights-of-way fees in order to maintain competition in local markets without overcharging the companies. Members stated that charging the companies an excessive amount in fees would ultimately result in higher prices for the consumer.

The committee is co-chaired by Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville and Representative Bill Carter. Other members include Senators David Sibley of Waco and Florence Shapiro of Plano, and Representatives Fred Hill and Steve Wolens.

Welcoming the members to El Paso was Senator Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso as well as Carlos Ramírez, mayor of El Paso. The mayor provided valuable insight into local viewpoints to the members by stating that El Paso strongly opposes any form of mandated ordinance in the area of telecommunications industries dealings with cities as each city's needs are very different from one another. Ramírez encouraged adopting a model ordinance that would serve as a guideline or basis for a city to negotiate with each company. The city of El Paso is currently involved in a lawsuit with Southwestern Bell Telephone concerning fees the city want to impose on the company in order to maintain local competition, good service, and low rates.

Providing testimony on behalf of the telecommunications companies was Bill Arnold, president of the Texas Cable & Telecommunications Association, Vahn Aldrigde from AT&T, and Barbara Hunt, general attorney representing Southwestern Bell Telephone. Hunt proposed that Southwestern Bell favors legislation that would impose "fee per line" methodology. This would set standardized, reasonable fees that each company would pay in order to provide service in a community. Hunt state that this should be the only fee charged to the company by the city.

The committee will hold its last public hearing in Lubbock next month.

Public Information Committee Draws Crowd in Tyler

TYLER - The Senate Interim Committee on Public Information held a public hearing in Tyler at the Sheraton Hotel on Wednesday, April 29. This is the fifth in a series of hearings being held throughout the state with three additional public hearings planned for Amarillo, Harlingen, and the Dallas Ft. Worth area. The committee is charged with identifying areas of concern associated with the Texas Public Information Act, formally the Open Records Act; including harassment, commercial enterprise, circumvention of the acts requirements, delays in production of information, access and availability of information, and costs and expenditures of public resources. The committee is also studying the impact of the act on the privacy interest of citizens and reviewing the role of technology as it applies to the act.

Local citizens appeared delighted to have the opportunity to tell the committee of their experiences. Testimony began with the editor and publisher of the Tyler Morning Telegraph discussing the circumvention of the Public Information Act by cities and government entities, including problems associated with the sealing of court records and settlements by the judiciary. The publisher of the Palestine Clarion testified about similar incidences she encountered in dealing with local authorities including a set-up request of information she knew they had already compiled. She was told it would take 15 days to fill the request. After explaining she knew they had the documents, they were turned over within 15 minutes. Three citizens from Murchison including a member of the city council, a candidate for the council, and a local concerned citizen testified about the problems they had getting records as simple as receipts and telephone bills. They discussed the frustration of not having effective enforcement of the law. Smith County Commissioner Sharon Emmert testified in support of information free to the public and the need for counties to use computers and the internet to relieve the cost involved in complying with requests. The mayor of Palestine, Robert McFelvy, testified in support of the freedom of public information. The city administrator of Troup testified about problems arising from public information requests including the manipulation of the numbers of copies requested purposefully to disallow staff costs to be charged. Various local citizens testified genuinely about the constitutional right of the public to have free access to information and that elected officials bare the burden of enforcing the act by instructing staff to comply timely with requests.

Members of the committee include Senators Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio, serving as chair, Ken Armbrister of Victoria, John Whitmire of Houston, Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso, and John Carona of Dallas.

The committee will gather its findings and present their report to the 76th Legislature when it convenes in January of next year.

The next hearing is tentatively scheduled for May in Harlingen.

Finance Subcommittee Meets at the State Capitol

AUSTIN - The members of the Senate Interim Finance Subcommittee on Articles I, VI, and VII agencies held a public hearing Wednesday, April 29, in the Senate Finance Committee Room at the State Capitol. The committee members include Senators Gonzalo Barrientos (chair), Ken Armbrister of Victoria and Teel Bivins of Amarillo.

The meeting began with public testimony from representatives of the Texas Department of Transportation, an Article VII agency. Invited testimony came from Andrea Claire of the State Auditor's office who testified on the results of the statewide performance based budgeting survey.

There was also invited testimony regarding the supplemental charge made to the committee on government technology. Carolyn Purcell, Executive Director of the Texas Department of Information Resources gave an overview of barriers and solutions to advancing the use of technology in state government. This testimony was followed with a presentation by the State Agency Coordinating Council on Information Technology Staff Retention and Recruitment. In addition, presentations were made by the Kelli Dan, Classification Officer of the State Auditor's Office, as well as Vol Montgomery from SabreData and Dominica Council from Hewlett Packard.

The committee will gather its findings and present their report to the 76th Legislature when it convenes in January of next year.

Subcommittee Hold Hearing on Nursing Facilities

AUSTIN - The Long-Term Care Legislative Oversight Committee's subcommittee on a Survey Regarding Nursing Facilities, held a public hearing on Wednesday, April 29 in the Lieutenant Governor's Committee Room at the state capitol. The subcommittee is part of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and includes Representative Jim McReynolds (chair), and public members Dr. Ken Kramer, and Pat Karrh. Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth also attended the meeting. Senator Moncrief informed the committee members with insight gained from serving as chair of the Senate Interim Committee on Home Health and Assisted Living.

Invited testimony came from panels of medical providers and nursing home ombudsmen. Public testimony followed.

The committee will gather its findings and present their report to the 76th Legislature when it convenes in January of next year.

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