Assembly OKs cable franchises from state;

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Also passed is a bill limiting Valley homes in floodplains.

Sacramento Bee

Legislation hailed as a way to give Californians lower prices and more choice in cable television services was approved overwhelmingly Wednesday night by the state Assembly.

On a day in which scores of bills roared through the house to meet a Friday deadline, lawmakers also narrowly passed legislation to ban new Central Valley subdivisions on flood-prone land.

The cable measure, by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, would allow telephone companies to compete directly with cable firms in offering a “triple play” package — telephone, Internet and video.

Assembly Bill 2987 would open the field by allowing phone companies to obtain a state-issued franchise rather than negotiate separately with cities and counties.

AT&T and Verizon have led the charge for AB 2987 with a multimillion-dollar lobbying and advertising campaign.

The measure attracted widespread bipartisan support Wednesday. The final tally was 70-0, with 10 lawmakers not casting votes.

Officials of AT&T and Verizon have said the bill would allow them to offer fiber-optic phone, video and Internet packages that would enhance DSL service and provide 300 or more TV channels, including movies on demand.

But numerous questions remain unresolved about AB 2987, ranging from local government revenue to assurances that low-income communities will receive equal treatment.

Núñez vowed to continue negotiating with all parties as the bill moves to the Senate.

“The driving force behind (AB 2987) is to make sure the consumer gets the best deal possible,” he said.

AB 2987 is opposed by cable firms, which argue it would be unfair to require them to meet terms of existing agreements while allowing phone companies a sweeter deal.

“The key for us is a level playing field, so that everyone who provides services plays by the same rules, beginning on the same day,” said Marc Burgat, spokesman for the California Cable and Telecommunications Association.

Burgat said one possibility would be to allow existing cable providers to terminate their existing pacts, if they desire, and apply for any state-issued franchise provided by AB 2987.

The cable firms also want guarantees that any phone companies that enter the market won’t “cherry pick” a service territory, offering inadequate services to low-income communities.

Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California, hailed Wednesday’s Assembly vote as a “big step forward for consumers in California.”

McNeely said he was not surprised by the bill’s overwhelming passage.

“It’s a compelling issue,” he said. “It’s hard to be against competition and choice for consumers.”

But Jamie Court, president of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, criticized the Assembly’s passage of such major legislation at a late hour — nearly 9 p.m. — with very little debate.

Debate over AB 2987 has been raging behind the scenes for weeks, but lawmakers took less than 20 minutes Wednesday to debate the bill.

“The public doesn’t really have anyone asking the tough questions,” Court said.

While the cable bill received bipartisan support, the flood-control measure received the bare-minimum 41 votes needed to pass the 80-member Assembly.

The measure, Assembly Bill 1899, is a linchpin in efforts to reduce flood risks in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds.

Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said it makes no sense to continue allowing unlimited development on flood-prone lands.

AB 1899 would not impose a moratorium on Central Valley development, but it would create a new hurdle for builders.

Under Wolk’s bill, new subdivisions would be permitted only if the state Reclamation Board determines that they have at least 100-year flood protection and a “reasonable plan” to secure 200-year flood protection within 10 years.

The two standards refer to the Central Valley levee system’s ability to withstand massive flooding that has a one-in-100 or one-in-200 chance of occurring in any given year.

AB 1899 would apply to developments of 25 housing units or more that are not “infill” of vacant lots inside existing tracts. Retail and office development would not be affected.

Nearly a half-million Central Valley residents, 2 million acres of cultivated acreage, and 200,000 structures with a value of $47 billion are at risk of flooding, according to the state Department of Water Resources.

The state currently has no control over floodplain development but could be held liable for property losses if levees fail.

“This state could go bankrupt paying for the losses of all the homeowners in the Central Valley,” Wolk said Wednesday.
Jim Sanders can be reached at (916) 326-5538 or [email protected]

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