Oregonians overcome major hurdle in telecommunication assistance program bill

Originally appeared in Silent News, June 2001.

Representatives of various deaf and hard of hearing communities have recently achieved a victory in their battle with senators over amendments to Oregon’s HB2105. HB2105, which proposes to extend the sunset date for telecommunication assistance programs for disabled and low-income Oregonians to January 1, 2010, was filed upon the request of Gov. John Kitzhaber preceding the legislative session. Two amendments threatened to cap the funding and cut one of the programs.

The telecommunication assistance program, coordinated by the Public Utility Commission (PUC), consists of three programs: the relay service, assistive telecommunication devices loaner distribution to Oregonians who are disabled and unable to access standard phones, and telephone assistance for low-income citizens. Funds for the three programs are collected through a monthly surcharge on each telephone line. While the maximum allowance is 35 cents per line, the current surcharge is 10 cents.

Damara Goff Paris, who heads the PUC program, said, “At the [Senate Business, Labor and Economic Development sub-committee] hearing, Sen. Mae Yih proposed HB2105-1, which amended the bill to reduce the statutory authority to collect a surcharge on each telephone line in Oregon from 35 cents to 7 cents, called for a task force to study moving the equipment distribution program to Senior and Disabled Services Division (SDSD) and eliminating the Oregon support for the telephone subsidy program. The chair of the subcommittee, Sen. Roger Beyer, later submitted subsequent amendments that increased the cap to 13 cents, but shortened the sunset to 2004.”

A press release from the Oregon Association of the Deaf, which was in favor of HB2105 but not Yih’s or Beyer’s amendments, said, “PUC has effectively and successfully managed to oversee the three programs at 10 cents per line access, which is below the current cap of 35 cents. However, there are some [Federal Communications Commission] mandates rulings such as cost recovery for 711, which may increase the rate per minute. Once [Oregon Telecommunication Relay Service] complies with all of the FCC rulings, the surcharge rate will most likely increase. Also there is a need for a safety net in event of any future FCC mandates rulings in the next 2 years.”

Paris also pointed out that if the amendments had passed, then more than likely there would not have been enough money to cover the subsidy program by the middle of the next biennium. “In the past four months alone, there has been an 8% increase in OTAP recipients, which exceeds our projections.”

After several months of consumer rallying, phone calls and letters to senators on the subcommittee, the decision to pass HB2105 without the crippling amendments was made on May 11, 2001, with a four-to-one vote for a recommendation to pass the bill with only a minor amendment (to clarify that the surcharge collected on wireless instruments must be made only if the primary use is in Oregon) to the Senate floor for approval by the Senate. Sen. Corcoran was cited as one of the major reasons the bill passed without the additional amendments. Corcoran, who publicly admonished Beyer and Yih on the lack of merit for their amendments, states, “I am a strong supporter of the unamended bill.”

While a major hurdle was overcome, the slightly amended bill must still pass the Senate and go back to the original House committee that passed the bill last February. Paris remains optimistic, however. “It was amazing to see so many consumers rally for the program. The end result proves that if the consumer voice is loud and persistent enough, anything can be accomplished.”

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