Curb on telemarketers dies in Senate panel

`Do-not-call' list opposed by business

February 23, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A bill aimed at giving Marylanders relief from unwanted telephone sales pitches died in a Senate committee yesterday after one of the measure's co-sponsors switched sides.

The legislation, which would have let residents put their names on a state-maintained "do-not-call" list, enjoyed broad support from consumer groups and from the public, but it was vehemently opposed by some businesses that rely heavily on telemarketing. Two -- Bally Total Fitness Corp., the health club chain, and MCI-WorldCom, the long-distance phone firm -- threatened to move their operations out of state.

The bill failed to clear the Finance Committee by a 6-5 vote.

Even though a majority of the panel's members had signed on as sponsors, the committee chairman, Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, had made it plain he opposed the measure as anti-business.

"The powers that be didn't want this bill, it's that simple," said Sen. Jean W. Roesser, the Montgomery County

Republican who championed the do-not-call measure. "They got the votes."

Roesser amended her bill yesterday to satisfy objections by the state's retail merchants. The change would have allowed businesses to telephone consumers on the no-call list if they are or have been customers.

False impression

Despite her efforts, the bill failed when Sen. John C. Astle, one of its co-sponsors, voted against it. Afterward, the Anne Arundel County Democrat explained that he was swayed by opponents' arguments -- repeated yesterday by Bromwell -- that the do-not-call legislation could backfire once consumers find out that it would not block all unwanted phone solicitations.

Astle said he feared the bill would "create a false expectation in people's minds" that they wouldn't be bothered by telemarketers any more.

But "they'd still be getting a lot of calls," he added, because charities and politicians are constitutionally exempt from any restrictions on their fund-raising efforts and other exemptions were written into the measure.

He said people would be angered by the false perception when they continued to receive calls.

Astle denied being pressured to switch sides, but also said he didn't feel much public support for the measure, either. He said he is bothered by telemarketing as much as anyone else.

"It'd be nice if we could find an effective way to shut it down," he said.

Roesser dismissed Astle's explanation as a "red herring."

"Don't sell the public short," she said. "They would have known what the score is."

Theresa Hope-Goddard, Roesser's aide, said the Montgomery County legislator heard from plenty of Astle's constituents favoring the bill.

Businesses pleased

Bruce C. Bereano, lobbyist for the Bally chain, was pleased with the committee vote, saying his client "didn't want to leave the state." The firm, with regional telemarketing operations based in Towson, had written Bromwell to warn it would consider moving elsewhere if the do-not-call bill passed.

Similar do-not-call legislation has become law in eight or nine states, and Roesser said her bill was modeled on Georgia's. She said that both Bally and MCI have operations in that state, and the telemarketing restrictions do not appear to have hurt their bottom line.

She predicted that only about 5 percent of the state's households would have asked to be put on a universal do-not-call list, which firms using telephone solicitors would be required to heed.

Though charities and politicians are still free to call under the Georgia law, Roesser said that unwanted solicitations had dropped there by 65 percent to 70 percent.

Further action planned

A similar measure has been introduced in the House, where its prospects now seem dim. It has not even been scheduled for a hearing.

Undaunted by her defeat, Roesser has scheduled a news conference today to launch "an educational campaign" telling consumers how they may prevent some unwanted telephone calls, using existing federal and state laws.

"If you can't fight them, join them," she said, adding that she intends to expand her campaign but, "I won't use telemarketing."

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