Was HB60 an inside play by the Utah Taxpayers Association? All signs point to yes

Utah Taxpayers AssociationOnce HB60 hit the wires, I was quick to file a GRAMA request to find out what kind of communication Rep. Curt Webb had been receiving on the bill. Most of it is angry emails from Utah residents, many of whom were not accepting Rep. Webb’s cut-and-paste boilerplate reply about “transparency”. Here’s what he wrote along with my comments on each part:

Somehow the bill has gotten mischaracterized in the public eye. I have met with lobbyists and industry people over the past few days. I believe that much of the misunderstanding has been cleared up, and you may see a few minor amendments to provide that clarification. If it did what is being said of the bill, it would violate all of my conservative free market principles and run contrary to my voting record.

Actually, Rep. Webb, we understand the restriction all too well. You’ve been had. Just own the turkey and move on.

The bill does not prohibit infrastructure expansion. In fact it addresses no other entity than UTOPIA. UTOPIA is government entity created by an interlocal agreement and the public asks for and deserves transparency and accountability of them. The bill requires that any city into which UTOPIA expands become a member city. HB60 is not designed to damage UTOPIA is any way, but rather to provide clarity and accountability to citizens who may be involved in that expansion.

When UTOPIA builds in a non-member city, it has to negotiate a franchise agreement with that city like any other telecom builder. It’s already on a level playing field. Non-member cities can enforce transparency and accountability via this agreement. The only distinction with a member city is that the franchise agreement has been negotiated in advance for the entire municipality. By prohibiting UTOPIA from negotiating franchise agreements except on a citywide basis, you’re making them play by a different set of rules. That is, at the very core, damaging.

Why? Example: We must keep in mind that UTOPIA is an entity composed of member cities. If an expansion were installed in a non member city, and problems with the network arose; who would the citizens in that area turn to? That user is not a citizen of the proviing [sic] entity. Their own non member city could say “We are not UTOPIA.” If they turned to UTOPIA for help, those member cities could say “You are not our constituent”.

We’ve already established that the franchise agreement gives the non-member city power to establish and enforce terms with UTOPIA. It seems like Rep. Webb either doesn’t understand franchise agreements or is convinced that unless cities increase their involvement with UTOPIA, they won’t enforce the provisions of them. The former is most likely as the latter is simply outlandish. Unless, of course, he’s conceding that cities don’t properly enforce the terms of franchise agreements with operators like CenturyLink and Comcast. That, however, seems unlikely.

The bill only applies only [sic] to government entities as providers, (iProvo no longer applies), and requires as a matter of government accountability to users, that expansion areas become member cities. Some already have.

The cities are and have been accountable to their citizens, member or not.

Email between UTA and Curt Webb on HB60

Email between UTA and Curt Webb on HB60

So I find myself wondering how his confused logic spawned this bill in the first place. Then I came across the one email not between Rep. Webb and someone furious at this bill: an exchange between himself and none other than Royce Van Tassell of the Utah Taxpayers Association! Most telling, Rep. Webb emailed Van Tassell directly and out of the blue to solicit their talking points on the issue.

Unshockingly, the UTA has the same fundamental misunderstandings of how franchise agreements work as Rep. Webb expressed in his missive. Van Tassell also alluded to the push coming straight from UTA’s president, Sen. Howard Stephenson. Don’t take my word for it: read the email yourself.

This is just the latest in the long and disturbing trend of incumbent providers funneling money into a sitting senator’s company to influence the legislative process from the inside while keeping their hands “clean”. How the voters of Draper can tolerate it is beyond me. It’s my hope that they’ll wise up to it and send Stephenson packing.

Sen Valentine waffles on Amendment 2 to SB190

Sen John ValentineNo sooner did Sen. John Valentine promise to UTOPIA and Macquarie to withdraw Amendment 2 to SB190 than he started telling constituents that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. As previously covered, this amendment would keep Macquarie from doing the same kind of utility fee deal in new cities that it’s currently arranging with UTOPIA. It seems now that Sen. Valentine is dealing with UTOPIA and Macquarie in bad faith, telling them one thing while he tries to do another.

This means we need to keep up the email campaign to oppose it. In addition to hitting the Senate body, you should also contact Rep. James Dunnigan, the House sponsor, to let him know that you don’t want to support Amendment 2. The only way this goes through in a way to benefit all Utahns, not just those in UTOPIA cities, is if the bill is preserved as amended in the Senate Business and Labor Committee.

There’s only 13 days left in the legislative session. Make them count!

PS Yes, I have a GRAMA request in to see who’s been talking to Sen. Valentine about this bill.

SB190 gets amended to slam the door on new UTOPIA cities

Sen John ValentineDid you have a glimmer of hope that you’d be able to get UTOPIA service in your city once Macquarie comes in? Sen. John Valentine just smashed it with a hammer. His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

Right now, the bill is in the Senate and will come to a floor vote. It’s urgent that you contact members of the Senate, particularly your senator, to tell them to oppose this amendment. Sen. Valentine is working in bad faith by not involving UTOPIA cities either in this new amendment or the original bill.

Click here to email the entire Senate body and voice your opposition! They need to hear from you.

UPDATED 2-27-2014 2:25PM: We won! Valentine has committed to UTOPIA mayors to pull Amendment 2. Now if it can just go through without any other trickery…

SB190 revised: is the bill “fixed”?

Sen John ValentineI’ve been looking over some amendments that Sen. John Valentine has made to SB190 and it appears to be much improved over its original form. The utility fee is back on the table, but it does require that municipalities carve out exemptions for “economically indigent” persons if they can’t afford the fee. It also conveniently still omits Provo from these new requirements despite its large low-income student population.

The changes came after Sen. Valentine met with mayors from UTOPIA cities, something he probably should have done before even drafting the bill. It also cites unnamed “mayors” who initially pushed him to run the bills, presumably not from UTOPIA cities. I’d personally like to know who they were and why they would care what UTOPIA cities are doing with their budgets and bond debts.

One lingering concern I have is that “economically indigent” isn’t a defined term I can find in either in the bill or elsewhere in the chapter. The best I can find is in Title 77-32-202, paragraph (3)(a)(ii) where indigent is defined as under 150% of the federal poverty level for purposes of assigning free legal counsel. Based on the current federal poverty level, that would work out to $35,325 for a family of four. It’s unknown if that would be the standard by which all cities would be judged or if they’d be free to establish their own guidelines.

Even with the improvements, I still plan to speak against this bill. If it’s a good idea, there’s no reason to exempt Provo (thus providing an indirect advantage to Google). I’m also not comfortable with leaving terms undefined as a “gotcha” to try putting the original restrictions in place in another session. Finally, I don’t like the legislature trying to dictate terms to cities as if they are a super-city council. If they want to run the city, they should get on the council themselves.

Bill Alert: SB190 will be heard in committee Monday Feb 24 at 8AM

I just got a notice that SB190, the bill that could chase off Macquarie, will be heard Monday February 24 at 8AM in the Senate Business and Labor committee. Word on the street is that members of the committee have been getting a lot of emails in opposition (good job, folks), but we also should show up to speak against it. Make sure you spread this around so we can show up in force!

Bill Alert: SB190 also targeting UTOPIA, could scuttle Macquarie deal

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Just like with Rep. Curt Webb, all you have to do is follow the money. Since 2008, Sen. Valentine has taken $200 from the Utah Rural Telecom Association, $1500 from CenturyLink/Qwest, and a whopping $7250 from Comcast with at least one donation every single year. He’s heard from the incumbents; now he needs to hear from us.

SB190 isn’t currently on the Senate Business and Labor Committee agenda, but I’ll let you know when it is. If it passes, it could hamper the deal to have Macquarie complete gigabit fiber to over 150K homes and prevent them from expanding beyond current UTOPIA cities. Now is the time to contact the members of the committee and tell them to kill this bill.

Bill Alert: HB60 dropped from the agenda AGAIN

I’m beginning to think that Rep. Curt Webb is trying to win a “most indecisive legislator” award or something. I’ve gotten word (from three sources) that HB60 has been pulled from the HouseĀ  Government Operations Committee hearing yet again. There’s no indication yet on when it will now be heard, but we’re certain to get at least 24 hours of notice. With the President’s Day holiday coming up, I think we can at least stand down for the weekend.

As always, I’ll provide updates when they’re available.

Zombie Bill: HB60 comes back, committee hearing Friday at 8AM

Despite looking like it’s dead, HB60 is coming back for a committee hearing on Friday at 8AM. This is the best chance to kill the bill for good, so it’s very important that as many opponents as possible come to the hearing and voice their opposition. The bill is currently fourth on the agenda, so even if you’re a bit late, you’ll likely be able to get a chance to speak.

Now is the time to email, call, or visitĀ members of the committee to urge them to oppose this bill. Showing up will make the most difference. If it dies in committee, there’s a good chance it won’t come to a floor vote at all.

Bill Alert: HB60 held again

Rep. Curt Webb has held HB60 again to make some additional modifications. It will be heard again either Wednesday or Friday. I’ll post more as it becomes available, though notice of the agenda change wasn’t made until minutes before the committee meeting. CenturyLink is definitely watching this one as their head lobbyist, Eric Isom, was spotted outside the committee room.

Rep. Webb was also on a radio interview opposite Pete Ashdown and was reportedly unable to articulate a good reason to pass the bill. I’m hoping he withdraws it before there’s more egg on his face.

More than a coincidence? HB60 would kill access to UTOPIA as CenturyLink preps business gigabit

We’d like to think that incumbents are a well-oiled lobbying machine, but they often do things so ham-fisted and amateurish that you’re left wondering if Gomer Pyle is in charge. This week is proving no different. After getting a legislator who took their money to propose cutting off UTOPIA at the kneecaps, CenturyLink announced that they would be offering gigabit service to office parks along the Wasatch Front. You know, the same ones that HB60 really wants to keep UTOPIA from providing service to.

So let’s recap our timeline here:

  • CenturyLink sends campaign cash to a legislator.
  • Said legislator runs a bill to kick UTOPIA out of business parks that paid to have the service built to them.
  • CenturyLink comes in behind that and sells their own service, most likely at a much higher cost. This includes state agencies such as UDOT, UEN, and UTA.

Could it be any more obvious as to what’s going on around here? CenturyLink has convinced a legislator, Rep Curt Webb, to run a bill to kick their competition out so that they can take those customers. I’m furious about that arrangement. You should be too. It’s time to yell about this one from the rooftops.