Cable Fable Running The Table

June 12, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — A bill passed by the U.S. House last week would change how the telecom industry is regulated and would take away the right of cities and townships to negotiate cable television franchise agreements by giving that authority to the Federal Communications Commission.

In addition, if the bill becomes law it would not require new or existing providers to offer service to every resident of a community. It would also make the FCC the clearinghouse for local rights-of-way approval, and it would reduce the franchise fees that local units currently collect from the cable companies.

“When you have the votes, you vote. When you don’t, you talk. I think the House is done talking,” said GVMC Executive Director Don Stypula.

Stypula, who is not only closely following the federal cable bills but also those in the state House and Senate, said he had talked with Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, about what the House measure means for local units of government. But he wasn’t able to reach Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland. The House passed its bill by a wide 321 to 101 margin.

As a slight consolation to the council’s 32 member communities, Stypula said the bill in the U.S. Senate wasn’t as bad as the one in the House. The Senate bill would give local public officials a month to reach a franchise agreement with a potential provider. But if a contract wasn’t done within those 30 days, then the FCC would issue a “standard franchise” to the cable operator. Stypula said the Senate was acting more deliberately on its bill than the House.

At the state level, the House Committee on Energy and Technology held a hearing that gave proponents and opponents of that chamber’s cable franchise bill chances to speak on the legislation. Holland Mayor Al McGeehan, attorney John Pestle of Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett, and Joe Fivas of the Michigan Municipal League told the committee members how the bill is likely to harm cities and townships.

But Allendale Township Supervisor Jim Beelen, who attended the meeting, indicated that much of what the trio said seemed to fall on deaf ears, and that the committee appeared to be more receptive to what telecom executives and supporters of the bill had to say.

“I can tell you that local government was not painted in a very good light at the committee meeting. The attitude from some members was derogatory to local government,” said Beelen.

“All they are interested in is the money,” Beelen said of those representatives.

In the state House and Senate bills, the state would collect the franchise fees and then share that money with the locale in which the cable provider is located. But local public officials are skeptical of that “cable revenue-sharing plan” because the vast majority believes that lawmakers haven’t kept their promise in regard to sharing the sales-tax revenue that is generated in their areas.

The bills, HB 5895 and SB 1157, would also turn over the control of local rights-of-way for a cable build-out to the state.

Kentwood Mayor Richard Root, who chairs the council’s Legislative Committee, told GVMC members to pay close attention to what lawmakers are doing in Lansing. He said a lot of them are pushing bills that affect municipalities, even though most of them are clueless as to what it takes to run one.

“Stay tough. Stay together,” said Stypula of the telecom bills. “Stay on message regarding this.”   

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