- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana cellphone users could face millions of dollars in increased 911 service charges, under two measures sent to the governor’s desk.

The Legislature has given final passage to measures from two Republican lawmakers that would raise as much as $20 million a year for local emergency call systems.

Hammond Rep. Chris Broadwater’s bill could levy a maximum 40-cent increase for more than 2.9 million Louisiana wireless customers, according to a financial analysis of the measure.

The increased fee could have wireless customers paying about $1.25 per month per wireless connection, raising as much as $14 million annually. Current monthly service charges settle around 85 cents, according to the financial analysis.

Shreveport Rep. Thomas Carmody’s proposal extends the fee hike to prepaid phone customers. Fees for those customers, who don’t pay monthly service charges, would automatically increase from 2 percent to 4 percent.

The doubled fee on prepaid users would leave pay-as-you-go customers paying an average $1.20 fee per month. The change would raise an estimated $6 million per year.

All of the generated funds would go toward emergency communication services and operations. They could not be used for any other purpose.

The money is aimed at paying for a Federal Communications Commission plan for the next generation of emergency communication services. Supporters said it will better link public safety dispatchers and first responders with people using text, data, videos and voice contact. Some of the funds would also go toward establishing location accuracy.

Carmody, who was encouraged by 911 system operators to bring the bill, said the fundraising is necessary to keep emergency services up to date with changing technologies.

Louisiana emergency communication operations are primarily dependent on charges from landline phone use, he said, and with more users transitioning away from landlines, revenue to run 911 facilities has decreased.

Prepaid cellphone users, Carmody said, should “help offset that cost.”

Unlike that bill, Broadwater’s proposal to increase charges for other cellphone users does not automatically institute the higher fee.

It “simply raises the cap so that we provide the opportunity for our local folks that operate our 911 districts to determine what is the appropriate rate for them. Some of the districts may need some additional help; some may be doing fine and don’t need to increase any fee,” he said.

Representatives from major cellular and wireless service providers opposed both measures, saying they were concerned that not enough research had been done to ensure customers wouldn’t seek service from other states because of hefty fees in Louisiana. The representatives said they wanted to make sure customers’ money was being spent prudently.

Opponents also noted the neighboring states of Texas, Arkansas and Mississippi all have lower caps on the fees.

Supporters of the fee hikes said the increased amounts were not randomly selected, but devised from a formula that creates a baseline across all prepaid and monthly services.

Broadwater’s proposal would go into effect Aug. 1 and Carmody’s would follow on Oct. 1, if Gov. John Bel Edwards approves.

Broadwater’s bill exempts customers in Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes from the increases because they already pay $1.26 in fees. Caddo Parish customers also already pay a heightened emergency communication fee, so the measure limits its increase to 25 cents.

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House Bills 805 and 678: www.legis.la.gov

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