Civics made easy
Like most Portlanders, I am pretty steamed about the disgraceful mess that Oregon state politics has become. In recent posts, I have nominated two rural state senators as nitwits of the year, but I have also confessed that I have a lot to learn about all the rest of the culprits in the Legislature who are holding the state down. I have vowed to do some research and report back to readers here.
As it turns out, this task may be easier than I first thought. To identify the worst legislators, one needs only open the daily paper while the two houses of state government are in session.
Today, for example, we read in The Oregonian that Oregon's Public Utility Commission (PUC) will not be getting the power any time soon to punish unscrupulous phone companies that "slam" and "cram" hapless customers. These are the practices whereby companies like Qwest and Verizon secretly switch a customer over to their long distance services without the customer's knowledge or consent, or suddenly start billing the customer for expensive optional services that the customer never ordered. I've had both of these things happen to me, and I've wasted many hours on hold with phone company jer -- er, customer service representatives -- getting things rectified.
In many other states, the PUC has the power to fine companies who are found to have engaged in such shady practices. For example, nine of the 14 Western states give the PUC this authority. But not here in the Beaver State, no sir! Here the chair of the House Business, Labor and Consumer Affairs Committee is killing any and all bills that would allow our PUC to fine the phone companies.
Who is this mighty chair? Why, it's Rep. Betsy Close, R-Albany. Her position and her explanation of it are most interesting. As The O reports it:
Regulators are seeking any potential power over slamming and cramming, two of the most common consumer complaints in Oregon. They had hoped that fining would give them the extra regulatory muscle many other states exercise.So where does that leave the PUC? Well, if it wants to take action against an offending phone company, it has to find itself a lawyer and drag the company into court, rather than fining it in an administrative proceeding. More work for lawyers, more expense for the taxpayers, and less protection for the consumers. As one expert explained:
But phone companies and legislators say the PUC can crack down on cramming and slamming without civil penalties.
"The telephone utilities really don't want the PUC to have that authority, and they seem to have found a comfortable ear in the Legislature," Public Utility Commissioner Lee Beyer said.
Rep. Betsy Close, chairwoman of the Business committee, said the bills her committee is considering would protect consumers without creating unfair business restrictions inconsistent with those in other states.
"I just have a general rule that I'm not going to put additional rules on businesses because of the poor economy we have," said Close....
In states where the utility commission has been able to fine, slamming and cramming has dropped dramatically, said Brad Ramsay, general counsel of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, a Washington, D.C., association of state utility regulators. States charge as much as $70,000 per violation of slamming and cramming laws.Ms. Close, do your constituents really not want to make slamming unprofitable? Or are you listening instead to some group that donates to your political campaigns?
With fines, "slamming gets unprofitable real fast," Ramsay said.
As for her assertion that added PUC authority will hurt the local economy, it rings hollow. What -- if it has to pay fines to the PUC, Qwest is going to pack up and leave Oregon? Spare us.
A little research on Rep. Close's voting record over the years makes it clear that she needs to go on the roster of legislative offenders. So add her to Sens. Ted Ferrioli and Steve Harper on the list of lawmakers that Oregon might do better without.
The other addition for this post is Sen. Charles Starr, R-Hillsboro, who is somehow running the Senate Education Committee even though his views on public education are right out of the John Birch Society library. He's warning parents to take their kids out of the public schools, and doing so gleefully because he apparently objects to the fact that the public schools aren't built around references to the good Lord.
He's already taken his lumps elsewhere in the past week or so, though. So let's leave my Salem bitch post for this week dedicated to Representative Close.
One final note: I'd like to welcome those who have been referred to this site by the blog Just Some Poor Schmuck. John, the fellow who writes that blog, is an Albany resident, and I would think he voted for Ms. Close. Also, he disagrees with everything I write about state politics, primarily because I am a lawyer and in his mind all lawyers are automatically arrogant, evil, and wrong. I suspect John will go ballistic when he reads this post. But it should be interesting to read his explanation of the fact that the status quo which Chair Close is so staunchly defending actually forces state agency disputes with the phone companies into the courtroom, where the lawyers are in charge!