JEFFERSON CITY - The Senate has begun debate on a bill that could boost the local phone bills of many Missourians while reducing long-distance calls within the state.
After three hours of debate on topics ranging from rate increases to the future of the telecommunications industry, law makers decided to quit for the night. However, Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County, said the Senate will probably re-open debate today.
Supporters of the bill, including Sen. Danny Staples, D-Eminence, said that rates will go up anyway, regardless of whether the bill is passed.
"We must move into the 21st century, phone rates will go up, but so will the price of a good GMC pick-up truck," Staples said.
Local phone companies would have more freedom to raise and lower their rates if the bill passes. Currently, companies such as GTE and Southwestern Bell have to wait months for approval from the Public Service Commission to change their rates. If the bill passes, local carriers would only have to wait about 30 days.
The PSC regulates the rates of Missouri utility companies.
For months, consumer groups and phone companies have been arguing over the bill's provisions. Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, maintains that the bill unfairly benefits phone companies.
"I would recommend that anybody who has money should go out and buy stock in the telephone companies," Caskey said. "Because I think their stock is going to go up if we pass this bill."
Another key issue debated by the Senate was the proposed creation of a state Universal Service Fund. The creation of the fund would subsidize phone service for low-income customers and to rural areas where the longer distances drive up costs for the phone companies.
Currently there is a federal fund to cover those costs, but the Federal Communications Commission is reviewing the way the federal funds are distributed. Phone companies in Missouri are expected to get $46 million from the federal fund - more than any other state except Texas.
One of AT&T's lobbyists, Steve Weber, jokingly refers to the federal fund as "cooperate welfare."
The bill's sponsor would not speculate as to when a final vote will be taken on the measure.
"It's a very complicated issue," Goode said, "But I think it's going pretty well. I feel confident."
A similar measure has been approved by a House committee, but House debate has been postponed.