Lawmakers approve phone-deregulation legislation

JACKSON — Mississippi would lose most of its remaining regulatory authority over AT&T under a bill the House gave final passage Monday.

Telephone service in Mississippi was mostly deregulated in 2006, ending the Public Service Commission’s traditional power to set rates. House Bill 825 would remove the commission’s remaining ratemaking authority over 30,000 local-only landlines.

The measure would also end AT&T’s obligation to serve as company of last resort for landline customers in its traditional territory, and eliminate requirements that the company file service and financial data with the commission.

Public service commissioners and some consumer advocates fought the bill, saying it was likely to hurt rural residents and senior citizens. The bill was amended to retain the commission’s authority over consumer complaints, as well as some other regulatory provisions, but opponents say that’s not enough.

AT&T says the requirements are unfair burdens that competitors don’t bear. The Dallas-based communications giant has won passage or is pushing similar bills in a number of other states.

Some opposition to the Mississippi measure had come from rural phone companies worried about losing revenue for switching calls. The Mississippi Senate deleted a study committee to examine switching charges. Yesterday, the House agreed to the change, 86-34, sending the bill toward Gov. Phil Bryant’s desk.

Some Democrats tried to get the bill sent to a round of House and Senate negotiations where they hoped to reinstate the study committee, saying they wanted to protect rural telephone companies.

“The small telephone companies in this state, many of them are opposed to this,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson. “If it hurts their business, it’s going to hurt your local communities. That’s all there is to it.”

House Public Utilities Committee Chairman Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said forcing a conference committee with the Senate was just an effort by opponents to defeat the measure

“We’ve got the best agreement we can get,” Beckett said. “There are those who would obviously love to kill this bill.”

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