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Socialized telephones 

Government subsidies, corporate welfare, hypocrisy, AT&T and HB1525.

On the day I had a column decrying a bill for socialized telephone service that props up AT&T's government subsidy, furthering corporate welfare and hypocrisy, the bill — HB1525 — passed the House of Representatives with nary any debate and 90 votes.

So if you would like to get a bill passed, you probably ought to see if you could get me all riled up to the point that I rail against it in a column.

I suspect the column didn't much show up on any House member's radar that morning before state Rep. Bobby Pierce of Sheridan — a utility contractor, mind you, and speaker pro tem of the House — pushed through this little measure on the premise that its purpose was merely to help the poor rural man get broadband service to his isolated house.

I do know that AT&T lobbyists were saying that my column was an attack on the concept of helping poor country folks and that my complaint about locking in AT&T's subsidy amount was misguided in that all phone companies with landlines were similarly getting locked into their current subsidy amounts — only, you see, so that they would continue to get the money they get now to help the rural folks. 

All right, then. Let's run through this one more time. 

Existing law says that users of all phones in Arkansas, landline and wireless, must pay in their bills a little tax to go into a pot to subsidize rural broadband installation — with recipients of the subsidy placed into categories of funding based on the number of landline customers.

AT&T is in the highest category of subsidy but likely is about to drop below the number of landline customers required for continued eligibility in Category 1.

The amount of tax we all pay on our iPhones and Blackberries fluctuates according to the eligibility of recipients. It is capped at the current $22 million. But, if AT&T drops into Category 2 and competes with CenturyTel for a lesser amount of subsidy, then it loses its assurance of $3 million and all of us see our phone tax cut a little because the fund goes down to $19 million.

It's a tax cut, dear Tea Party radical.

So this bill, while professing to do other stuff, basically says AT&T can continue to get the high subsidy based on its customer base on Dec. 31, 2010, which means that all phone users will continue to be taxed at a rate producing $22 million rather than $19 million, with the $3 million going straightaway to a supposedly private company, AT&T, presumably so it can use the money to get broadband to Hickory Knot. 

But neither existing law nor this bill sets up any kind of accountable system for how the money gets used.

Here's my point: Let us not pretend to be conservatives devoted to lower taxes, lower spending and the glories of the free marketplace while we charge some poor sap a tax on his cell phone so that AT&T can continue enjoying ad infinitum a current level of public subsidy.

You could amend out the date and continue this rural subsidy program under the rules of existing law, to the tune of $19 million rather than $22 million, and save a few nickels on everyone's phone bill.

Here is what this is like: We could set a subsidy paid out of a government pot compiled of a few-cents tax on newspaper advertising sales. The money would be for distribution to newspapers to help them deal with burdensome costs of delivering newspapers in rural areas.

We could base the subsidy allotments to individual newspapers on the number of subscribers. And we could lock in those circulation figures from a time when they were high, in, oh, December 2004, so that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette could continue to get the highest level of subsidy no matter how many subscriptions it might lose to the future vagaries of the great American marketplace.

Somebody get Walter Hussman on the phone. I just thought of a way to make him millions from a tax on all advertisers in all newspapers across the state.

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