Critics fear loss of local revenue
By ERIKA WOODWARD
ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 27, 2009)—Community television stations face the prospect of extinction if a bill heard Thursday in the House becomes law, said representatives of public-access television from across the state.
The proposal seeks to remove the ability of local governments to negotiate franchise agreements with cable television providers and give it to the state in an attempt to raise money for Maryland and reform an outdated communications tax code.
This shift of power could increase Maryland's general fund revenues by as much as $115.9 million. But the statewide franchising plan is being met with opposition from community television stations and county governments, who say they depend on the fees garnered from franchise agreements to fund television programming and county budgets.
College Park Mayor Pro Tem Robert Catlin told the House Ways and Means Committee that "franchise fees make up almost 4 percent of our government," money the city cannot afford to lose, especially in the current fiscal climate.
Doug Breisch, the television and telecommunications manager for Rockville, also voiced his concern.
"In Rockville's case, this would mean the loss of at least $420,000 a year in franchise fees," he said.
Montgomery County, receives as much as $13 million in fees, according to Richard Turner, the executive director of Access Montgomery Television.
He said if the fees went to the state AMTV "would not exist," a sentiment seconded by Sandra Peaches, the executive director for Prince George's Community Television.
"We would be dead and buried," Peaches said. CTV's demise would include the death of its training programs, which help trainees land jobs at major news outlets, she said.
Others were concerned the bill would give cable providers like Comcast and Verizon incentives to monopolize the airwaves or suffocate local cable channels, where citizens go for information on school closings, city council meetings and hyper-local news.
It's an incentive even Verizon and Comcast don't want. Representatives from the companies testified in opposition to the bill, citing a number of "successful" local franchise agreements they have recently entered into.
Statewide franchising is meant to "spur competition and bring rates down," said Bunnie Riedel of Howard County, who served as an analyst for the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. The organization examined 20 statewide cable franchising bills that were passed since 2005, she said.
"(But) we've had four years to discover that neither of these goals have been realized," she said.
Riedel said cable companies under statewide franchising "cherry-pick wealthier communities" where residents are "500 percent less likely to live in poverty" and raise rates "8 percent to 30 percent, depending on tier of service."
The bill's sponsor, Delegate Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, said she introduced the legislation to start a dialogue and spur the development of a task force to look into establishing new tax regulations that better serve all parties involved.
Tuner of AMTV said that's good news. He just wanted to ensure his voice was heard before the negations began.
"They said the bill was meant to start a dialogue," he said. "We're here for the dialogue."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.