PEG Advocates Blast Ohio Fee Proposal

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A PEG-access (public, educational and government) advocacy
group is accusing Ohio cable operators of attempting to undermine local governments'
ability to collect franchise fees.

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Community Media
last week said a proposed amendment to the state's budget bill would result in millions of
dollars in lost revenues that taxpayers would have to make up to support PEG access.

The bill (H.B. 283) recently passed the Ohio House of
Representatives 33-0, and it was being studied last week by a Senate conference committee,
prompting the ACM to mobilize its members against the measure.

The ACM's primary argument is that the amended bill grants
telecommunications outfits and utilities access to public rights-of-way, while stripping
municipal governments of their authority to collect fees for the use of public property.

The one-paragraph amendment stated, "A political
subdivision of the state shall not levy a tax, fee or charge, or require any nonmonetary
compensation or free service, for the right or privilege of using or occupying a public
way for purposes of delivering natural gas, electric, telecommunications or
cable-television service."

In a prepared statement, the ACM took dead aim at the cable
industry, arguing that the measure "takes away the ability of local governments to
hammer out agreements between themselves and cable operators."

Industry executives accused the ACM of making
"wildly" unsubstantiated and "mean-spirited" allegations against
operators that were not behind the move to amend the budget bill.

The ACM called the amendment "corporate welfare at its
worst" and an "embarrassing" attempt to force local governments "to
knuckle under" to large telecommunications companies and utilities.

"It's a real mess," ACM executive director Bunnie
Riedel said. "It would mean an end to public education in Ohio."

Because of the lost revenues, local franchising authorities
would face having to raise taxes on their citizens "in order to pay for corporate
greed," she added.

"And this at a time when cable operators are making
astronomical profits," she said.

If the amendment is not removed, the ACM will challenge the
measure in court on constitutional grounds, Riedel said.

"These fees are not germane to the state budget bill,
so we believe we can ultimately win in court," she added.

Industry officials, meanwhile, argued that "in no
way" does the amendment prevent LFAs from collecting their traditional franchise
fees.

"But they're whipping themselves into a frenzy because
they think cable is behind this," Ohio Cable Telecommunications Association executive
vice president Ed Kozelek said.

Kozelek noted that federal law allows for the collection of
franchise fees, which are not necessarily earmarked for PEG access.

Moreover, he added, the industry has offered to support
"clarifying language" to the budget bill that would protect cities' rights to
collect franchise fees from local cable operations.

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