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Unlisted number fee likely to stay

A bill that would have halted the charge fails to gain enough votes in the state Senate.

May 29, 2008|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The cost of keeping your phone number private probably isn't going down any time soon.

A bill by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) that would have eliminated phone-company fees for keeping numbers out of phone directories and unavailable through 411 directory assistance failed to pass in the Senate on Tuesday.

"I won't bring it up again," she said Wednesday. "Nothing is going to change."

In the face of intense lobbying from AT&T, Verizon and smaller companies, Kuehl said she had given up trying to combat fees that now run as high as $25 a year.

Kuehl's proposal, SB 1423, enjoyed some bipartisan support, but it garnered only 16 votes, five short of the 21 needed for passage, during an initial tally on the Senate floor. Although the bill is still alive, it is unlikely to be voted on again before a Friday deadline. A tally showing how senators voted can be found at www.latimes.com/business.

The measure, sponsored by AARP and other consumer advocates, would have given traditional phone users the same privacy protections enjoyed by owners of cellphones.

"This bill was brought to protect consumer privacy," said Kuehl during a debate on the floor of the Senate. Phone company fees have no relationship "to what it costs to keep your number from being listed."

Phone companies argued that fees collected for unlisted numbers and other services should be set by the marketplace and not the Legislature.

Removing the fees, they said, would reduce their earnings, cut into state tax revenue and possibly put phone company jobs at risk.

The threat of job losses prompted a "floor alert" sent to senators by the Communications Workers of America. The union asked for a no vote on Kuehl's bill.

The union's contention that "SB 1423 unfairly targets companies with union employees" appeared to resonate among Democrats.

Many members from heavily unionized Democratic districts voted against Kuehl, their longtime ally. Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) abstained, sending a signal to his majority caucus members that the Democratic leadership did not favor the bill.

Perata said through a spokeswoman that he did not support the bill because he believed that phone company rates should be set by the California Public Utilities Commission.

In 2006, the PUC almost completely deregulated fixed-line telephones, saying that phone companies and a competitive market should be allowed to set fees for unlisted numbers and other features, such as call-waiting. Since then, most fees have risen.

Monthly charges for basic, local phone service, which range between $11 and $17 per month, depending on the carrier, are frozen under current law. However, phone companies will be free to raise those rates after Jan. 1, 2009.

"The consumer always gets the short end of the stick when anything is deregulated," Kuehl said. The lobbying by phone companies, cable television operators, the union and business groups put senators under tremendous political pressure during an important election season.

Telephone companies are big contributors to politicians' campaigns. According to the secretary of state's office, AT&T reporting giving $950,000 and Verizon $174,000 just during 2007.

That clout, though seemingly effective in sidetracking the Kuehl bill, apparently didn't help the phone companies win passage of another bill they supported. The measure, SB 1389 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), would have limited state oversight of proposed mergers to ensure the deals are in the public interest.

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marc.lifsher@latimes.com

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