Lesniak Phone Bill On Hold

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TRENTON — Legislation that reportedly could have led to higher telephone bills for New Jersey seniors and other low income residents on tight budgets was pulled from the agenda Monday before it could have received a final nod from state  lawmakers.

The proposal to deregulate telephone and cable companies, S-2664, is sponsored by state Sen. Raymond Lesniak and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan and critics say it could result in drastic price increases for more than a million New Jerseyans who rely on a basic landline for telephone service.

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A report released by two liberal public interest groups noted that 17 out of 20 states had phone rate increases — some as high as 100 percent per year — after passing similar deregulation measures.

Verizon CEO Dennis Bone made a late pitch for the bill promising not to raise elder residents’ phone rates for at least two years but 23 consumer advocate groups signed onto a letter urging lawmakers not to buy the corporate plea.

Bone said that the report opposing deregulation of telephone service is “just filled with lies, false assumptions and fiction.” Proponents of the deregulation bill also  noted that one of the report’s authors has ties with the Communications Workers of America, a labor union representing telecommunications workers which opposes the legislation.

Stephanie Brand, director of New Jersey’s Division of Rate Counsel, warned that consumers could lose key protections under deregulation, including the rights to have billing errors corrected, receive credit for service outages, and be protected from having phone service without their consent.

The bill, which is sponsored by top Republicans as well as the two Union County political bosses, passed the Assembly last month and awaits a vote in the Senate before it reaches the governor’s desk.

Current New Jersey regulations cap basic phone service at $16.45 per month, or $197 per year.

The ‘60-Plus Association’ — a Republican-leaning group that calls itself the conservative alternative to American Association of Retired People (AARP) — purchased mass media advertising announcing their support for the  “Market Competition and Consumer Choice Act.”

Over the years, the right-wing group has also sought to privatize Social Security, end the federal estate tax, loosen gun restrictions, and oppose health care reform proposals as well as federal energy standards.


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