Deaf, blind and dumb

Telephone services for the blind and deaf could be the latest casualty of the energy crisis.

While the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been wrestling with how to keep the lights on and utility companies solvent, it has neglected to deal with approving the budget for the California Telephone Access Program (CTAP). Add to that a heavy dose of legislative inattention, which has allowed CTAP’s sole funding source to expire, and you have a situation that critics say could leave blind and deaf Californians without telephone service.

CTAP provides the hardware and software that allow the disabled to communicate by phone, with its work funded by a telephone bill surcharge that needs to be reauthorized by the Legislature every few years.

Trying to hit two birds with one stone, the Legislature last session piggybacked a new reading service for the blind onto the funding renewal bill. Thinking both matters would pass easily, the state’s attempt at efficiency backfired when the reading service proposal sunk the entire bill. Without the go-ahead from the state to collect the surcharge, CTAP started out 2001 with no funding.

Assemblyman Roderick Wright has since drafted Assembly Bill 219, urgency legislation aimed at reinstating CTAP’s funding. But even if this bill finds its way to the governor—who has said he will sign—the program can still expect a two- to three-month lag. That’s how long it will take the telephone companies to resume collecting the surcharge and then forward the money to CTAP.

Exacerbating CTAP’s funding difficulties is the PUC’s indefinite postponement of the program’s budget approval. PUC officials say the energy crisis has made it hard for them to find time to review CTAP’s budget.

“We submit our budget in October to the Public Utilities Commission,” said Vivian Terry, an outreach specialist for CTAP. “They’re supposed to approve it by the first of January. Now it’s April and we still don’t have our budget approved.”

The program is now facing a Catch-22. “Because we don’t have our budget approved,” Terry said, “we can’t go forward with the things that the Public Utilities Commission is expecting us to accomplish this year.”

As it stands now, CTAP is running on borrowed time, operating on last year’s budget and keeping itself afloat on a surplus that may or may not last until June. Meanwhile, the PUC still has not confirmed a date when it will review the budget, and members of the disabled community are growing restless.

“I would urge [people] to write or call on both of these issues,” Terry said, “and get these things passed through, because there are people that would be lost without it.”