Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A bad idea triumphs: Verizon: $500,000,000 — Public: $0

Published in the Portland Phoenix

From time to time, we all wonder how bad public-policy choices make it through “the democratic process,” being vetted and scrutinized by “the appropriate agencies,” and incorporating “public input.”

The Verizon-FairPoint Communications deal (in which Verizon will sell its landlines in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont to FairPoint for $2.4 billion) is an ideal case study. It’s roundly criticized by nearly everyone. Even the regulators who were asked to approve the deal are wary. At first, Vermont’s regulators rejected it outright, then later voted to approve a revised version. Maine Public Utilities Commission chairman Kurt Adams made it clear he was holding his nose while voting to approve it, and New Hampshire PUC chairman Thomas Getz declared that the initial version was “not in the public interest,” though his board voted 2-1 to approve a revised proposal Monday. (The dissenter, commissioner Graham Morrison, wrote that “the public interest ... requires something more than ... good intentions.”)

Apart from Morrison in New Hampshire, regulators in all three states have chosen the devil they don’t know over the devil they do, by agreeing to let Verizon sell out (and avoid tax obligations of more than $500 million) in the hope that promises from a financially strapped communications company (FairPoint) will give us something better than neglect from an incredibly wealthy communications company.

Bad ideas like this one survive first and foremost because someone thinks they’re good ideas. Not surprisingly, FairPoint and Verizon love the idea — FairPoint gets to collect more money from more customers and pass it on as dividends to shareholders; Verizon gets to keep $500 million it would have paid in taxes and use that money to invest in fiber-optics and cellular technology elsewhere in the country. (Those of us in mountainous rural areas are stuck with older, slower technology, and that’s just our bad luck, as far as Verizon is concerned.)

But even more important to the survival of bad ideas such as this merger is that state utility regulators behave like powerless functionaries whose job is to moderate corporate rapaciousness, rather than seeing themselves as empowered defenders of the public interest.

Even when regulators are presented with fundamentally terrible deals that endanger the public interest, threaten economic development, and may end up risking people’s very lives, they see their responsibility as exacting just enough concessions from massively wealthy companies to let the regulators claim they got something for the people, even when they have given away much more.

It’s not as if they haven’t been warned. Union representatives and industry experts have been railing against various aspects of the deal since it was announced back in January 2007. Customers have expressed significant concerns, in letters, e-mails, and phone calls to regulators in Augusta, Concord, Montpelier, and even Washington DC. And the consumer advocates who represent the public in utilities proceedings in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont have all expressed reservations about this deal in uncharacteristically bold language — saying FairPoint’s assumptions are “inappropriate” and “do not reflect reality.”

Wimpy regulators
One member of the three-person Maine PUC didn’t even ask any questions of Verizon or FairPoint during the public hearings. Sharon Reishus remained silent, even though this deal is the largest and most controversial piece of business to come before Maine utilities regulators in state history, and despite the fact that the telecommunications sector is the one that state officials, economists, and activists alike see as a key to Maine’s prosperity for decades to come. But her silence is not the problem: It’s the symptom of the real problem.

Regulators have expressed frustration with Verizon’s well-documented lack of attention to serving residents and businesses in northern New England. The solution, though, is not to hand Verizon a pass on its $500 million tax liability on profit from the sale. Regulators have standards (and can increase the standards), and they have enforcement tools to punish companies that don’t meet the standards, such as fines and penalties.

They have not used these tools very much, or very well. And they don’t seem to feel they are in a position of strength, with Maine officials making the “demand” that if North Carolina-based FairPoint does not roll out its slow-speed “broadband” Internet service, DSL, to enough homes by the end of 2013, the company would get an extra year to meet the same goal, with no penalty. “Our history with some utilities enforcing merger conditions after we issue a decision has not been great,” Maine PUC chairman Kurt Adams admitted in a January 3 hearing.

But rather than hold themselves to a higher standard of performance and actually enforce their rules, regulators have passed the buck — hundreds of millions of them, really — to us, by letting Verizon off the hook. And it is we, the public, who will pay for their complacency.

In the first place, FairPoint’s economic projections were shockingly optimistic (see “No Raises For Seven Years,” November 16, 2007, and “No Raises — It Gets Better,” November 20, 2007, both by Jeff Inglis). And those fragile projections were made before we entered the economic downturn most economists now believe we are in.

Financial peril
There has been a lot written about FairPoint’s financial problems, both current and future. Normally, when seeking to impose conditions on a sale, regulators ask for financial guarantees from the buyer.

Not this time. State officials are so worried that FairPoint is — or will be — in financial peril, that they’ve wrung more money out of the seller, Verizon, making the multi-billion-dollar behemoth throw a few bucks our way as it heads out the door, almost like a charity contribution for the privilege of abandoning northern New England.

Indeed, when Vermont’s Public Service Board initially rejected the deal, it ruled that “FairPoint had not demonstrated that it would be financially sound” after the sale went through, and could end up incapable not just of expanding phone or Internet service, but even of keeping service at the current, below-standards level.

Put charity aside: we are paying Verizon to leave. State officials will probably deny that, but think again. The cost to us is more than just the missing $500 million in tax revenue.

FairPoint is taking on more than $2 billion in debt to do this deal, and the company is expecting not only to pay off that debt, but also to make a profit. Every dollar the company spends on Verizon’s landlines will have to come back in, paid by the customers in our monthly bills. The more FairPoint pays, the more we, the public, will ultimately have to pony up over time.

If FairPoint isn’t making enough money to make its executives or shareholders happy, the company will come back to regulators in all three states, crying poor, and asking for higher rates. Of course, FairPoint really will be cash-strapped and poor, so the regulators will find it hard to refuse. And if they approve rate increases, they and their agencies won’t feel the pinch; we will.

The regulators may even forget that Verizon overcharged telephone customers in Maine more than $30 million in 2005 alone, and that our state made FairPoint promise to cap its rates for five years to help make up for those excess charges. The only way the regulators could abandon their duties more would be to develop amnesia in addition to their weakened spines.