Wireless phones fee advances

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Many cellphone users would pay a few cents more a month under legislation that cleared a House committee Wednesday.

House Bill 238 by state Rep. Patrick Williams would add long distance, pager and wireless lines to the list of telecommunications lines taxed to generate money for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

The Louisiana House Ways and Means Committee agreed, without objection, to advance the legislation. HB238 now goes to the full House for consideration.

A sign language expert translated the testimony and communicated the outcome to hearing-impaired audience members.

Under the legislation, 2 cents would be added to the monthly bill for a wireless line or pager.

Williams, D-Shreveport, said the addition is needed because people are dropping their land lines and switching to wireless phones.

The money generated would be used to pay for accessibility and technology for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

Maria Delahoussaye Annis, of Branch, said she needs special equipment to alert her to something dangerous such as a fire in her home or something mundane such as a visitor on her doorstep.

Annis, who is blind and deaf, relied on interpreter Clinton Laberge to vocalize the words she signed with her hands and fingers.

“We want to live a completely independent life,” Annis signed. “It’s kind of a dark world we live in, so to speak.”

Brandi Berkeley with the Louisiana Commission for the Deaf said Louisiana residents currently pay a nickel per month on their land lines.

She said the money that generates no longer is sufficient to provide for the needs of the deaf.

Berkeley, who has a deaf child, said Louisiana has the highest number of deaf and blind people in the nation because of Acadian descendants with Usher syndrome.

In Louisiana, descendants of the French-Canadians who migrated here are prone to a type of the syndrome that results in babies being born deaf and gradually losing their vision. They often struggle with their balance and motor skills.

“I’m passionate about these services and request your utmost consideration,” Berkeley told the committee.

Currently, consumers pay an extra 5 cents a month for residential and business local lines, generating $900,000 a year for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired.

The Legislative Fiscal Office said expanding the tax to wireless and other lines would generate an additional $1 million a year.

The five cent tax on local land lines would drop to two cents.

An additional 6.5 million lines also would pay the tax. Prepaid phones and wireless devices used only for data, such as reading tablets, would not be taxed.

After Annis testified, committee Chairman Joel Robideaux said he hoped legislators would remember the words she conveyed.

“If there is a small fiscal cost, it is just that — a small fiscal cost,” Robideaux, R-Lafayette, said.