Lower long distance phone costs and more choice in phone providers could be on the way to Texans if a measure passed by the Senate today becomes law. House Bill 789, sponsored by Senator Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay, would reduce government oversight over phone companies in an effort to bring more phone service providers into the market. "We are making an attempt to move in an orderly transition to an open and competitive market," said Fraser.
According to Fraser, Texas first began deregulating its telecommunications market in 1995, when one company owned more than 90 percent of the telephone lines in the state. The Legislature passed a law that year that would require that company to share its lines with competitors. Since then, about 20 percent of phone lines have been opened up to other phone service providers. Also in the last three or four years, new technologies have been developed that give consumers more choices when it comes to choosing telecommunications service. Voice-over-Internet providers, cable-based telephone service, and cell phones have all emerged as viable alternatives to traditional phone lines. The intent of HB 789 is to give these new technologies a fair share of the market to ensure lower prices for consumers.
HB 789 would authorize a study of the telecommunications market in Texas to determine what areas currently have ample competition. For this purpose, the definition of competition would be at least three competitors to the dominant provider in the market. Most urban areas have several telecommunications providers, so government regulation over these markets would be relaxed starting January 1, 2006. Suburban markets that meet the competition criteria would be opened up on July 1, 2006. For rural areas, the Public Utilities Commission would be given discretion to determine when those markets have adequate competition.
The bill would also eliminate state access charges for long distance calls, moving to the federal standard of one cent per minute. Fraser said that for customers who use the dominant provider in the state, long-distance calls will decrease by about five cents per minute.
Also today, the Senate sent a bill to the governor's desk that would make significant changes to the state's probation system in an effort to reduce the number of technical violators sent to prison and reduce case loads for probation officers. Houston Senator John Whitmire has expressed concern over the number of probationers sent back to prison on technical violations, and that the number of people on probation is too much for case workers to handle. Part of this problem, says Whitmire, is that probation sentences are too long, and continue on after an offender has been rehabilitated. "The current problem is that we have too many people on probation who have proved they have turned their lives around that they no longer need that supervision," said Whitmire.
HB 2193, sponsored by Whitmire, would set the maximum probation sentence for first and second degree felonies, felonies committed with a weapon, and sex offenses to 10 years, with a maximum sentence of five years for all other felonies. Misdemeanor convictions would carry a maximum probation sentence of two years.
HB 2193 would require a judge to review a probation sentence each year after half of the term has been served, and would authorize the judge to terminate the sentence if he or she deems the probationer no longer a risk to society. The effect of this, says Whitmire, is that the people for whom probation works will not be subjected to lengthy terms that serve neither the probationer or society. Whitmire added that HB 2193 would reduce the number of cases from 150 to 116 per probation officer, giving officers more time to spend with offenders who need more attention.
Whitmire estimated that the number of people on probation in Texas would be reduced by about 2,000 in 2006, and by more than 5,000 in 2007. The Senate version of the budget also includes more money for the probation system, including funding for more probation officers. Whitmire was adamant that this bill is a tough-on-crime measure, giving probation officers the time and resources they need to focus on probationers who do not meet the terms of their probation. "I want the toughest policy on probationers in the state, but I want one that works," he said.