Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley intends to challenge the constitutionality of a new law that removes the “carrier of last resort” mandate from AT&T and other layers of oversight from phone companies operating in Mississippi.
House Bill 825 – known as the “AT&T Bill” — became law July 1. Before it cleared the Capitol and earned Gov. Phil Bryant’s signature, it was the subject of intense debate over the PSC’s role in regulating landline rates and resolving customer complaints.
The original version of the bill stripped the PSC of any jurisdiction over customer complaints; the version Bryant approved restored it.
Rep. Charles Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, chairs the Public Utilities Committee, where the bill originated. He said in an interview during the session that a meeting with the three commissioners in which he promised to restore customer-complaint jurisdiction had assuaged much of their concerns.
Presley, the Commission’s lone Democrat, said in an interview last week that he sees the potential for rural customers to have their landline phone service eliminated, now that AT&T is no longer mandated by law to provide service to those areas. Presley also said the bill’s removing single-line phone service rates from PSC jurisdiction violates the Mississippi Constitution.
Specifically, Presley cites Article 7, Section 186, which requires the Legislature to pass laws that allow for the “supervision” of telephone companies, among others, either by a commission or other entity.
“It’s as clear as the day is long,” Presley said of the Constitution. The challenge will be filed in Hinds County Circuit Court. Presley said last week he hoped to file it either late last week or early this week.
He is challenging the law as a private citizen, he said, not in his capacity as a public service commissioner.
“I intend to challenge this on behalf of little communities like Randolph and Dennis and Dumas – little places where customers have been paying a phone bill all these years, and they don’t deserve to have the rug jerked out from under them or have to pay out the nose is this bill stands,” Presley said.
“If the Legislature wants to please their friends in the phone business by ending rate jurisdiction, they’re going to have to amend the Constitution by letting the people vote. They passed this bill because they knew Mississippians would not go along with giving telephone companies a blank check to raise rates.”
Deregulation of this sort started in 2006, when phone companies operating in Mississippi became exempt from some oversight if they bundled their services – for instance, combining phone service with Internet service. Single-line phone service remained under PSC purview. House Bill 825 changed that.
AT&T officials said while the bill was circulating through the Capitol that subjecting it, and not the company’s competitors, to rate regulation in rural areas was unfair. AT&T is pursuing similar legislation in several other states.
Mayo Flynt, president of AT&T Mississippi, told the Mississippi Business Journal last session that the end of 2011, the company’s number of landline phones fell below 700,000. “If anything demonstrates that there’s not a monopoly anymore, I think it’s that.
“All we’re saying is don’t continue to treat us like we’re the only game in town,” Flynt continued. “Remove these regulations off of us so that we can compete the same as our competitors.”