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Lobbyist Money Help  

April ballot considers a cell-phone tax for emergency services

March 30, 1999
By: Jorge C. Alvarez and Anna Brutzman
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Missourians will decide in Tuesday's ballot whether to compel cell-phone users to pay extra for 911 emergency services.

Under Proposition A, the price tag for converting the current "star-55" emergency number for cell phones to the more universally known "911" would be up to 50 cents a month for the phone users.

The new 911 system would be able to identify phone numbers of callers and their locations.

"This is why Proposition A is well worth the small cost," said Steve Veile, Campaign Coordinator of Missourians for Safety on the Road.

The cell-phone tax adds up to about $5 million a year. That's too much money to spend on an answering and locating service, said Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California. Locating callers would only help one or two people a year because most people, unless they are unconscious, can tell operators where they are, he said.

But star-55 is confusing and a poor substitute for a wireless 911, Veile said. Of particular concern, he said, are out-of-state drivers who perhaps are unaware of star-55.

"They don't know about star-55," he said. "They only know about 911."

Still, star-55 seems to be catching on in Missouri. According to a study conducted by AT&T last fall, 1 out of 2 Missourians are aware of star-55. Also signs on the highways tell motorists about the emergency number.

But awareness isn't widespread enough, said Veile.

"Missourians had the star-55 number for ten years, but still not everybody knows about it."

If passed, Proposition A would bring Missouri into compliance with a four-part Federal Communication Commission regulation that urges states to implement a 911 system for cell phones. The FCC wants every state

* to provide a 911 connection even if the owner of the phone doesn't pay the phone bill,

* to provide a call-back number to operators,

* to provide operators with the location of the closest cell-phone tower that is receiving the 911 call, and

* to send a 911 call to the closest emergency services.

Emergency calls are currently being handled by the Missouri Highway Patrol, but 911 calls would be directed to county emergency services.

In the future, according to Missourians for Safety on the Road, 911 calls will have an automated feature that will locate 911 calls to within 425 feet from where the call was placed.

The proposal passed the legislature last year with little attention, and only Rohrbach voted against it in the Senate. It passed the House 132 to 15.