Panel hears testimony on bills to limit telemarketing

Residents embrace effort

businesses voice dissent

January 31, 2003|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The callers can be pesky, perky and persistent. But if some members of the General Assembly have their way, Marylanders could soon be able to hide from telemarketers.

"I think it is something a lot of people believe is beyond a mere annoyance," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "There are three things that are for sure: death, taxes and phone calls from telemarketers in the middle of dinner."

The Senate Finance Committee heard testimony yesterday on two bills designed to limit the number of phone calls that some say are increasing in frequency.

Frosh's legislation would make Maryland the 29th state in the nation to set up a "do-not-call" list that residents could join to block solicitations in their homes. The second bill, introduced by Sen. Ida G. Ruben of Montgomery County, would make it a crime for the nation's 140,000 telemarketers to leave solicitation calls on answering machines.

The proposals exempt politicians and political parties, meaning the pre-election onslaught of calls and automated messages would be allowed to continue.

Both bills were embraced yesterday by senior citizen and consumer organizations. Lou Tannich, 67, of Waldorf, testified that he is frequently "harassed" by telemarketers who employ deceptive tactics. "They are insulting your dignity, they are invading your privacy," the retired Navy employee said.

But some of the state's most powerful business interests - represented by some of the most influential lobbyists in Annapolis - lined up against the measures.

"The proponents paint telemarketers as evil people who work in boiler rooms in remote locations who enjoy calling people," said W. Miles Cole, lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce. "But in your neighborhood, a lot of people rely on telemarketers to keep their businesses going."

Businesses opposed

The groups opposed to Frosh's bill included three major telephone companies, the cable television industry, the Maryland Banker's Association and the newspaper industry - including The Washington Post, The Sun, and the Washington Times.

The business lobbyists argued the legislation would hurt the state's economy by strangling their ability to find new customers.

"It's a very anti-business piece of legislation and it is not going to solve the problem," said Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist representing Bally Total Fitness, which has a telemarketing center in Towson. "A call is a call is a call. If you have a telephone, you have voluntarily said people can invade or solicit by calling into you."

Bereano and others also argued that a state law is not needed because the Federal Trade Commission maintains a do-not-call list. The Federal Communications Commission is also considering regulations aimed at telemarketers, the lobbyists said.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a pro-business Republican, said he is sympathetic to the people who complain about telemarketing calls, but he believes the problem should be addressed at the federal level.

"This is more of an FCC issue," Ehrlich said in an interview yesterday.

But one Republican senator said immediate action is needed. "I am a business person, I don't even like being a sponsor of this bill, but my people back home are saying, `Enough is enough is enough,'" said Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican who co-sponsored the bill with Frosh.

The supporters of the do-not-call legislation - which the Assembly has voted down for the past three years - noted FTC regulations do not apply to interstate calls or solicitations from industries such as banks and credit card, telephone and insurance companies.

`Law is really crucial'

"That is why this law is really crucial to filling this gap," said Donna M. DeLeno, an advocacy representative for AARP. "There is an army of lobbyists against it, but an army of citizens for it."

Laura Howell, policy director for the central Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said the legislation would protect the elderly from being talked into buying things they do not need.

"When you have [an Alzheimer's patient], you just can't tell them, `Do not answer the phone,'" Howell said. "This is one piece of protection."

Frosh's bill would require the Public Service Commission to establish a database where residents could register if they did not want to be called by telemarketers. Telephone solicitors would then be required to purchase the database and refrain from calling those on the list.

28 states have laws

In the past decade, 28 states have passed similar legislation. But opponents charged that Frosh's proposal is so stringent that businesses would not even be able to call their favored customers to inform them about an upcoming sale.

Ruben's bill would prohibit anyone - except charities and representatives of political parties - from leaving solicitory messages on a resident's voice mail or answering machine. Violators would face a $1,000 fine.

In an interview, Ruben said she excluded people representing political parties because "they are strictly trying to reach the public to tell them about the campaign."

"They are not making money," Ruben said.

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