The Dean administration is digging deep into a variety of state funds in order to balance the budget this year. Administration officials now want to use $500,000 collected from telephone customers to supplement the 2002 budget.
But state utility regulators are fighting the idea. They say that the law requires that the money be used solely for telecommunication purposes.
VPR’s John Dillon has more.
The Public Service Board acts independently of the governor’s office. The three-person board functions like a court and regulates the state’s utilities.
This week, the PSB proved its independence. It opposes Governor Howard Dean’s plan to transfer $500,000 from a special telephone fund to shore up the overall fund budget.
The Universal Service Fund was established by the Legislature in 1994. It’s supported by a small surcharge on your phone bill. The fund pays for enhanced 911 services, telecommunication programs for the hearing impaired and it reduces phone rates for low income people.
Peter Bluhm is the director of regulatory policy for the PSB. He says it’s wrong to raid the fund for other purposes:
(Bluhm) “It’s really bad policy to take ratepayers’ money that’s been paid for a utility purpose and to use it for general fund purposes. While we understand the difficult situation that the Legislature is in, we think that there still should be some funds that they do not go after.”
Bluhm says the 1994 Legislature established the fund for a very limited purpose. He says this Legislature would have to change the law if it now wants to use the Universal Service Fund for other programs. Bluhm says the PSB does not think the law should be changed.
He also says that if the fund is used for this year’s budget, the telecommunications programs could be short of money next year.
(Bluhm) “The third reason is if they take as much as they want to take, it could have programmatic effects. It could prevent us from paying our bills. And what that might do, it might have an effect on support for E-911.”
The Public Service Board has asked the House Appropriations Committee to reject the Dean Administration’s request. But for now, the half million dollars from the Universal Service Fund is included in this year’s budget adjustment.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.