Protecting E-911 from politicians
Every month, Rhode Islanders pay a 911 fee on their phone bills, but most of the funds raised by this fee do not go to the E-911 system. Instead, every year, millions in 911 fees are diverted to pay for other expenses in the budget.
For over a year, Rhode Island politicians have been receiving unwelcome attention from federal officials for being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to diverting the 911 fees from the E-911 system. Last year, while visiting Rhode Island, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared the diversion of 911 fees to be “effectively stealing.” Last month, because of its diversion of 911 fees, Rhode Island was informed that it was ineligible to receive federal grant funding to upgrade the technology of its E-911 system.
Gov. Gina Raimondo appears supportive of placing 911 fees in a restricted account to be used only for the E-911 system but has not proposed it in the budget. House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello seems unwilling to put 911 fees in a restricted account because it could lead to “corruption.”
Meanwhile, House Republicans have proposed legislation to require 911 fees to be placed in a restricted account and to give the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission the authority to reduce the 911 fee if the funds are not needed to operate the E-911 system. This proposed legislation may seem novel, but it is a return to the way the E-911 system was funded a generation ago.
Back in 1984, the General Assembly passed legislation to create the E-911 emergency call system. The Public Utilities Commission was given the authority to set the 911 fee charged to telephone customers to pay for the system. Subsequently, in 1986, the General Assembly required that all the revenues collected by the 911 fee be placed in a restricted account which could only be used for the E-911 system.
In 1989, the Public Utilities Commission set the 911 fee at 42 cents a month on each telephone line. The funds raised from 911 fees went exclusively to pay for the E-911 system. In 1992, the Providence Journal reported that Rhode Island’s E-911 system was operating so well that Massachusetts public safety officials viewed it as “a model to emulate.”
About that time, Rhode Island politicians began to tinker with the 911 fee. In 1992, the General Assembly transferred the authority to set the 911 fee from the Public Utilities Commission to the General Assembly. The next year, the General Assembly raised the 911 fee from 42 cents to 47 cents a month. However, over the next few years, the amount raised by the 911 fees was approximately how much was spent on the E-911 system.
By Steven Frias, Rhode Island’s Republican National Committeeman, a historian and recipient of The Coolidge Prize for Journalism.