Sunday, March 01, 2009

Oh Maryland, My Maryland!

Here’s how I got the story. Seems a staffer in Maryland Delegate Sheila Hixson’s office (D-District 20), woke up one night and said to himself, “Gee, I think I’ll write a piece of statewide franchising legislation.” No one can testify whether a hallucinogenic was involved. Unfortunately for the staffer, he didn’t take time to go look at other statewide franchising legislation and his final product was not only the worst piece of statewide franchising legislation, it was practically unintelligible.

The other story I heard was Hixson looked at what the staffer had wrought and said to herself “I know what I’ll do, I’ll introduce this at the last possible hour on the last day that bills can be introduced and I won’t bother to pick up the phone and find out what Montgomery County, the county that I represent, thinks about this.” Good job Hixson! I’m sure it made the County Executive proud to know ya.

So on Friday the 13th Hixson introduced the bill thereby breaking a metaphorical mirror, and incurred not only bad luck but probably plenty of heart-burn. She had it all figured out. Monday, the 16th was a holiday, nobody would see this thing until at the earliest, Tuesday the 17th. And if a hearing is swiftly held on the following Thursday the 26th, how much opposition could she really get? Badda Bing, Badda Boom! The state steals almost $80 million in franchise fees from the cities and counties, like candy from a baby. Saweet!

Unfortunately, what Delegate Hixson did not understand is that the DC-Maryland-Virginia chapter of NATOA, CAPATOA, has been meeting monthly for years to discuss policy and mobilization should there be statewide franchising introduced. During that time, CAPTOA leadership has been educating the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League about statewide franchising. Even to the point of attending their conferences to hand out literature as to why statewide franchising sucks.

John Lyons, administrator in Anne Arundel County discovered the bill on return to his office after the holiday. He forwarded it to Lonni Moffett, Director of the Communications Office in Takoma Park. She in turn forwarded it to the Baltimore-Washington CAPATOA listserv and the phones began ringing off the hook. By Friday, the 20th, there was a big conference call lead by Mitzi Herrera, Cable Administrator for Montgomery County. During that conference call strategy was set, a panel of those who would testify was set and plans for attending the hearing were set.

Further, Delegate Hixson didn’t get that PEG is pretty robust in Maryland and PEG producers just love showing up with their cameras and aren’t shy about testifying as to why PEG is important. In addition, I am sure that Delegate Hixson didn’t understand that Richard Turner, Executive Director of Montgomery Community Television, was perfectly willing to rent a bus and bring his producers, board members and others up to the hearing, making it a standing-room-only crowd.

Looking back on it, I almost feel sorry for the Delegate. There was one person who spoke in favor of the legislation, one of her staffers. After he spoke and before she invited the opposition, the Delegate allowed that there would be no action taken on the bill, instead, she felt it prudent that the bill be “studied” for two years and she welcomed those who would speak in opposition as part of the beginning dialogue for that study. Thus began the stream of panels and people, researched and excellent testimony.

There was a bit of agreement that re-arranging the telecommunications tax paid by phone companies might be something the state would want to do. However, to a person, everyone was opposed to the statewide franchising part of the bill.

I had a moment of sheer epiphany when both Verizon and Comcast spoke in opposition to statewide franchising. We had heard that perhaps Comcast would support the bill and come up with amendments. But both companies told Ms. Hixson that statewide franchising was unnecessary, they had excellent relations with the local governments and they were content to continue those local agreements. The only thing I can think of is that both Verizon and Comcast knew the bill was a loser and they didn’t want to sour those excellent relationships by wasting political capital on it.

So now it goes to study, and we know there’s always a possibility it could come up again in two years, but somehow I doubt it. Hixson has been around a long time and I don’t think she would want to make herself look foolish by submitting to another righteous smack-down.

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