As we described on July 10, the California State Legislature is moving toward passing AB 1407, an AT &T backed measure that would devastate the state’s LifeLine phone program. The Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee voted 6-1 in favor of the bill on July 8, and the Senate Appropriations Committee votes on August 19. AT&T is used to getting its way in Sacramento, but the 1.2 million low-income Californians whose phone rates will jump under AB 1407 are finding surprising support from influential forces. On July 16, the Los Angeles Times editorial board urged the Legislature to defeat AB 1407, saying the measure “is premature and its consumer protections too thin.” The Greenlining Institute wrote in the Capitol Weekly that AB 1407 “undermines LifeLine’s essential guarantee of affordable phone service, effectively replacing that guarantee with a coupon.” As the media, community and labor organizations, and LifeLine participants learn of this corporate usurping of the state PUC’s jurisdiction, opposition to AB 1407 has grown. This may yet be a battle where David defeats Goliath, and the needs of low-income phone users trump corporate profits.

California’s LifeLine phone users are among the state’s poorest residents, and have least access to the communication methods many of us take for granted. For example, many using LifeLine are single-room occupancy (SRO) tenants. These tenants not only would have no phone access at all without LifeLine, but the San Francisco City Attorney's office is in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals battling the US Postal Service’s decision to stop delivering mail to individual mailboxes in SRO’s.

No mail, no phone---and no connection to the outside world for people often already isolated from social interactions.

AT&T’s proposed hijacking of the LifeLine program is particularly surprising in light of Democratic Party control of the California Legislature and the Governor Brown-appointed California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC’s) strong opposition to AB 1407.

On June 27, 2013, the CPUC voted to oppose AB1407, which would legislate rates for California LifeLine Program wireless phone service subsidies. The CPUC told the bill’s sponsor in a letter that “the bill would supersede an open proceeding on this topic at the CPUC that is considering the views of all stakeholders and all relevant issues in a deliberate and thorough manner.”

What clearly troubles the CPUC, and should anger all Californians, is AT&T’s effort to use AB 1407 to effectively destroy state regulation of the LifeLine program. As the CPUC put it in its letter:

It removes or limits the CPUC’s ability (a) to keep LifeLine service affordable, (b) to address the unique needs of California’s low-income residents, (c) to resolve LifeLine consumer complaints, and (d) to ensure all households are sufficiently informed of the LifeLine program. The bill would eliminate the current requirement that LifeLine providers must offer “basic service,” as defined by the CPUC, to residential customers.
It further repeals provisions requiring service providers to inform LifeLine subscribers of the availability and terms and conditions of LifeLine service, as well as any safety implications of the service provided.


As the Los Angeles Times noted regarding the PUC’s plan to release its recommendations in October,

“The right way to proceed is to let the commission do its work. If lawmakers don't like the result, they can override it. Unlike the Legislature, the commission has developed an
extensive record of views not just from industry executives but from Lifeline users and
other consumers. That process shouldn't be short-circuited when it's so close to
completion.”

Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg sits on the Appropriations Committee that considers AB 1407 on August 19. If former State Senate leader John Burton were confronted with a bill raising phone rates on the very poor, he would probably have to be restrained from grabbing the bill’s Democratic sponsor and throwing them down a flight of stairs. Few legislators have Burton’s passion for defending the very poor, but Steinberg needs to use his leadership to kill this destructive measure.

Defeating AB 1407 requires increasing public knowledge of its provisions. So spread the word.

Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron