Calif. Franchise Bill Close to Passage

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Lobbyists on both sides of the state-franchising issue have until Aug. 31 to make their cases to California legislators. That’s the deadline for passing a telephone company-backed bill that would ease the state’s level-playing-field law and assign franchising duties to the Public Utilities Commission.

All parties are scrambling to tighten the bill’s language as it heads to the Senate for a vote that was expected to occur on Aug. 28. If approved there, the measure would return to the Assembly, which must review the amendments and agree to them before final passage.

The bill is being amended daily: The last published version is dated Aug. 8 and interested parties might not see an official, printed version until the date of the Senate vote.

State officials want to make sure the PUC has time to develop procedures ahead of a crush of state authorization filings from expired franchises.

Those could come from Comcast Corp., which has been operating without a franchise in San Jose for 20 years, and from newly dominant Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles, which inherited city pacts that expired two years ago.

Incumbents want clear language on public, educational and government channel requirements, and assurance that obligations will be shared equally.

Supporters of those channels have lobbied hard for continued funding, proposing a plan dubbed “3-2-1” that would allow communities to pass local ordinances commanding 1% to 3% of gross revenues as a PEG fee, with smaller communities getting the most financial assistance.

California Cable & Telecommunications Association president Dennis Mangers said the 3-2-1 proposal is “off the table, as far as we can tell.” There might be an allowance for local ordinances to require 1% funding, though.

The bill is still the target of intense opposition by the League of California Cities, which is sending daily communiqués to its members. Current amendments address only issues that the telephone companies agree can be addressed, and only “in a manner acceptable to them,” according to one LCS bulletin.

Given the support the bill has received, Mangers expects it to pass by the deadline. It sailed through the Assembly on a 77-0 vote, the Senate Energy and Utilities Committee by 10-0 and, on Aug. 22, the Senate Appropriations Committee supported it 13-0.

Approvals have come even though a Senate analysis has indicated the new bureaucracy will need $1 million from the state budget.

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