COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Prepaid cell phone users should pay the same surcharge to support 911 emergency systems that regular cell phone and landline customers pay, some state lawmakers say.
A bill that would add a fee of about 60 cents to prepaid cell phone cards and Internet phone lines to help pay for local 911 service was approved Tuesday by the House Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, sending it to the House floor. Senators will consider a similar bill later this week.
A surcharge has been collected on traditional phone lines and cell phones for years, but customers buying prepaid wireless cards and some providers of phone service on the Internet have not been paying the tax.
State Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said prepaid cell phones now represent about 20 percent of phones being used in South Carolina.
“I don’t think anybody really envisioned prepaid cell phones taking off to the extent that they’ve taken off,” Hutto said. “Once they have a market share as big as they do now, you realize it’s sort of inherently unfair to folks who have land lines … It’s a service for everybody, so everybody should pay in.”
The flat fee on wireless phone cards would be collected by retailers and the Internet phone providers would pay the surcharge the same way other phone companies do.
Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, said the only opposition to the bill has come from retailers who would have to collect the fees. The South Carolina Association of Convenience Stores says on its Web site that it will join with other retailer groups in opposing this legislation.
Hutto said retailers could be allowed to keep a small percentage of the fee, as phone companies do, as payment for collecting the money.
The state collects the money and divides it according to a formula set by federal law among counties and cities that provide 911 service, said Bobby Bowers, director of the Budget and Control Board’s Office of Research and Statistics.
Bowers leads an advisory panel that oversees the fund and how it is used to keep 911 systems up-to-date.
“My goal is to get the money out there where it does the most good,” Bowers said. “Some of the equipment is five or six years old, some of that equipment is going to need upgrading shortly.”