Topeka — A bill that would add 50 cents a month to wireless telephone bills to fund improvements in county 911 systems was endorsed Wednesday by the House Utilities Committee.
The committee's unrecorded voice vote sent the measure to the House for debate. Supporters estimated the new fee would raise at least $7.8 million a year. Proponents say the goal is to increase the likelihood that someone making a 911 call on a wireless phone can be located.
Currently, emergency personnel in most Kansas counties' dispatch centers are shown the number but not the location of a cell phone on which a 911 call is made -- information automatically provided on calls made from traditional phones.
In addition, 911 calls made on cell phones are sometimes mistakenly routed to other counties or even across state lines, supporters of the legislation say.
"This will save lives, no doubt about it," said Rep. Carl Krehbiel, R-Moundridge.
Utilities Committee Chairman Carl Dean Holmes said the bill could give Kansas one of the nation's best 911 systems.
"If this works the way we want it to, we'll essentially be the first large state where, if you make a cell phone call, they'll pick it up and be able to locate you," said Holmes, R-Liberal.
But a few committee members opposed the measure.
Rep. Eric Carter, R-Overland Park, questioned whether the enhanced 911 systems contemplated by the bill would become obsolete quickly.
Carter said phones that can automatically show a caller's location to a dispatcher might become widespread soon. He also said problems with routing calls and locating callers occurred mostly in rural areas, not in urban centers or along interstates, where wireless service is strong.
Carter added that many people who call 911 on wireless phones do not need help but want to report accidents or problems they have seen.
"This is a tax on good Samaritans," Carter said. "Five years from now, we won't remember why we imposed this big tax, and it will be hard to get rid of."
Counties already can impose a fee of up to 75 cents a month on traditional telephones to support their 911 systems.
Under the bill, the new fee would be collected starting July 1, with 25 cents remaining in a wireless phone customer's home county and 25 cents going to rural counties with relatively few wireless phone users.
In 2010, counties could set their own fees, but they would be capped at 75 cents in a county with fewer than 40,000 residents and at 50 cents in other counties. None of the money would be redistributed among counties.
The Kansas Senate last year approved a bill imposing a 75-cent monthly fee on wireless bills, with 25 cents going to the county, 25 cents to rural 911 systems and 25 cents to wireless service companies.
The measure endorsed by the House committee Wednesday does not include a subsidy for wireless service providers.