The Alabama Dual Party Relay Board filed the suit this week to protect a $30 million fund that has accrued over the past 23 years through a 15 cent per month surcharge on landline telephones.
Telephone customers throughout the state agreed to the surcharge when it was implemented in 1988 to pay for the Dual Party Relay service that deaf customers use to communicate by phone with those who hear and with each other.
In the intervening years, technological advances have not only improved the communication and broadened the range of services, they have also reduced the contributions to the fund because fewer and fewer people have landline telephones. Cellular customers do not pay the surcharge.
Although proponents of the fund transfer claimed that the fund would continue to grow at a rate that would outstrip spending, the legal counsel for the Alabama Public Service Commission told a state House committee back in April that deposits had fallen by some $600,000 in the last year alone.
The program not only provides specialized landline telephones for deaf people, it also trains interpreters in American Sign Language so that the deaf can communicate by phone with the hearing, and it provides a reading service for the blind.
State Rep. Jamie Ison, a Republican from Mobile who was a regional director for the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind for 25 years, told the House Ways and Means Committee in April, “Technology is what is leveling the playing field for the deaf and blind.”
In making the case for the transfer during the House committee meeting, state Finance Director David Perry opined that email and texting negated the need for the Dual Party Relay system. About that, he was just wrong.
True, email and texting facilitate written communication, but that is a far cry from the type of conversation possible in American Sign Language, in speech and in a combination of the two. The Dual Party Relay system should be allowed to expand to provide the most advanced communication technology, not gutted.
Public Service Commission President Lucy Baxley issued a statement Wednesday calling the fund transfer illegal, even though she is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. “Instead of spending millions of dollars defending this illegal transfer, the money needs to be restored to the Dual Party Fund,” she said.
The money in the fund accrued over 23 years, 15 cents at a time. The fund was close to having accumulated enough that the interest alone would pay for the services, which would have allowed the Dual Party Relay Board to discontinue the surcharge. Now, with contributions falling every year, the services themselves could be in jeopardy.
Besides that, the enabling legislation specified how the money would be used, and raiding it for any other use is a betrayal of the trust of the millions of telephone customers who have been paying into it over all these years as well as depriving deaf and blind people of access to the services they need to function in this technological world.