The Investigators: Lawmakers focused on 911 money, not safety

ATLANTA – The Georgia General Assembly is supposed to get its 911 legislation from the state 911 Advisory Committee, but as the 11Alive Investigators first reported, the 15 member committee hasn't met in years.

So where are the ideas for Georgia's 911 laws coming from?

We couldn't get a straight answer from the sponsor of the only 911 bill to be presented in this legislative session. Rep. Don Parsons of Marietta is chairman of the House Energy, Utilities, and Telecommunication Committee. His legislation, House Bill 557, is designed to put the state in charge of distributing 911 fees collected from phone bills. Georgia would keep two percent of the millions of dollars collected as an administrative fee.

RELATED | Lost on the Line: Why 911 is broken

Under current Georgia law, about $1.50 is collected by the phone companies from each subscriber and then the money is sent every month to the cities and counties that run 911 centers based on the subscriber's address. The phone companies already get to keep three percent off the top as an administrative fee, and they would continue to do so under the proposed change. Currently, the phone companies are also allowed to back-bill the 911 centers for up to 45 cents per subscriber. AT&T generally bills 30 cents, Sprint bills a lower amount, but T-Mobile and Verizon don't bill Georgia 911 centers at all.

The new legislation would eventually lower the maximum "cost recovery" fee for phone companies to 15 cents, but it would also allow the phone companies to add a separate surcharge. The bill reads, "Any costs that a wireless supplier may incur to provide wireless enhanced 9-1-1 services may be recovered through a separate line item or surcharge on subscribers' bills."

But the bill's own author disagrees that the wording in his own bill.

"No actually there is no additional fee that the carriers can charge," Rep. Parsons said. "I think what you're reading there is it's making clear that they would have to put that on their bill that the customer would know what that surcharge is for. It's not an additional charge."

A state senate study committee suggested the direct surcharge by the phone companies to replace the current practice of taking the money from government fees. Parsons' bill would do both, potentially allowing the phone companies to double dip at the expense of the cell phone subscriber.

Does the sponsor know what's in his own bill?

The 11Alive Investigators asked Rep. Parsons, "Did you write this bill?" He answered, "Well all bills are written by our legislative council, that's a rule of the general assembly. We don't write bills."

"Right, but where did it come from? It didn't come from the lawyers," we asked. "The bill actually came as I said from the study committee that came out of the senate last year," Parsons answered.

The Senate committee did indeed recommend having the state take over collection and distribution of 911 fees, but we couldn't find any companion bill in the senate.

When we pressed Rep. Parsons further, he told us, "It was written by our legislative council with input from the representative from the City of Atlanta."

Atlanta's 911 center runs at a deficit every year and the city council has advocated for higher 911 fees at the state level. The city's lobbyist, Robert Highsmith, was the only one to speak in favor of Parsons' bill when it was introduced.

Robert Highsmith is also a lobbyist for AT&T.

The chairman of the telecommunications committee said he was not aware that the lobbyist represented both the city and the state's biggest phone company.

Don Parsons is retired from Bell South, which is now AT&T. The company's political action committee has contributed thousands to his reelection campaigns, and AT&T's regional vice president of legislative affairs has picked up the tab for several lunches and dinners with Representative Parsons over the years.

LINK | Lobbyist lunches and dinners

There's an additional clause in House Bill 557 that is very favorable to the phone companies. It solidifies the phone companies' immunity from lawsuits related to 911. Existing law prohibits victims and their families from suing the phone companies for damages related to 911 calls except in situations of "willful or wonton misconduct." Parsons' bill removes that clause, and appears to have been lifted verbatim from a law passed in the 2011-2012 legislative session that gave the phone companies absolute immunity for 911 calls from prepaid wireless phones. This measure would extend that protection to all wireless phones.

Rep. Parsons didn't have an answer when we asked him where that clause came from and what it was doing in a funding bill.

The 11Alive Investigators weren't the only people asking tough questions. County 911 directors called other members of Chairman Parsons' committee before the first hearing on the bill, complaining that the measure would take money from their operations. The bill would also see the state taking money off the top, and distributing the money on an annual basis instead of the current monthly funding model.

Chairman Parsons opened the hearing by saying he would not ask for a vote on his bill. He didn't throw in the towel completely, but the chairman did announce he would hold off on any action on House Bill 557 until next year. Because this is the first of a two year legislative session, the bill stays alive so long as it's not voted down.

Governor Deal's 911 Modernization Commission issued a 99 page report last year with multiple recommendations, yet not a single piece of legislation was authored or filed this year.

The opportunity to get any 911 bill to the floor of the Georgia House or Senate this year has passed. The 11 Alive Investigators revealed there is no state agency in charge of setting or enforcing 911 standards, while each city and county 911 center uses their own proprietary maps that are not shared on a statewide basis.

No fix for those issues is pending at the state capitol.

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