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New enemy rises against e-rate

The government's embattled program to wire schools encounters opposition from a Net campaign by a powerful lobbying group.

The government's ambitious but embattled program to wire the nation's schools and libraries encountered new opposition today, this time from a Net campaign by a powerful lobbying group.

The National Taxpayers Union today launched a Web site to spread its brand of gospel about the e-rate program, which was set up by the Federal Communications Commission under the direction of Congress as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The program this fall is expected to dole out $1.275 billion to schools, libraries, and rural health care facilities to help pay for Net access and internal wiring.

The e-rate See related Q&A:
Education official: E-rate must survive accounts for an estimated 19 cents of every dollar paid into the so-called universal service fund, which is used to ensure phone service for all members of the public. Universal service fees are paid by long distance carriers to phone companies, but the bulk of the cost for those fees is passed along to consumers.

Critics, including members of Congress, lobbyists, and even FCC officials, have dubbed the e-rate the "Gore Tax"--the namesake for the new National Taxpayers Union site--because they say the FCC's actions went beyond what Congress intended. They name it after Vice President Al Gore because he has been an outspoken advocate of the e-rate, along with the rest of the Clinton administration.

"My concern is that in enacting a sweeping new welfare program for schools and libraries that went well beyond the more modest discount program authorized by Congress, [the FCC] exceeded the scope of its authority and thereby enacted a new tax, engendering thorny constitutional problems," FCC commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth stated in testimony before a House subcommittee earlier this month.

Proponents of the e-rate contend, however, that it does not constitute a tax and that the program's opponents are using the term to distract the public.

"There is no Gore Tax," a representative for Gore said today. "No one's phone bill has gone up as a result of the e-rate."

"The reduction in access charges that phone companies have received more than offsets the e-rate program," the representative added.

Michelle Richards, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, said: "I think their campaign is misguided. This isn't a tax--[the campaign is] a total red herring. Unfortunately, this program that is designed to benefit the nation's schoolchildren has gotten caught in the crossfire of presidential politics."

Andrew Magpantay, director of the office of information technology policy for the American Library Association, echoed that assessment.

The National Taxpayers Association campaign "certainly misrepresents what the e-rate is," he said, noting that the ALA has a site that refutes many of the campaign's claims.

"The whole issue of the e-rate being the Gore Tax--if they're attacking the e-rate, then they're attacking universal service, and universal service has been around for several decades," he noted.

The campaign's site contains commentary, a petition, an opinion poll, and other features designed to mobilize efforts against the e-rate. It is the latest move in an ongoing effort by the nonprofit group to fight the program.