Maryland among states without a do-not-call list

Oft-introduced legislation succumbed to lobbying

October 01, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

While the national do-not-call program has become the do-not-start policy to limit telemarketing, most states will offer protection to their residents with their own lists - but not Maryland.

Maryland is one of about a dozen states that did not enact their own do-not-call registries for consumers to log their home phone numbers to reduce calls from telemarketers.

Some contend that puts Maryland consumers annoyed by the calls at a disadvantage compared with states whose lists can substitute for the stalled federal program.

Others say Maryland dodged a legal mess, as other states might be increasingly challenged in court, as was the national registry last week.

Since the decision by federal judges in Oklahoma City and Denver last week against the national do-not-call list, Washington officials have responded with uncommon speed to repair the program, but apparently to little avail.

The heads of the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission testified on Capitol Hill yesterday to explain the status of the list that 51.5 million households expected to take effect today.

The issue has morphed into an enormous question mark involving protection of free speech vs. privacy in the home.

Many telemarketing companies have said they will voluntarily stop calling people on the list. But of the 13,000 companies that have registered for the program, only 400 have paid for a full list of names, FTC Chairman Timothy J. Muris said yesterday. The trade commission said it will launch the list as planned, but with full penalties still uncertain.

A day after FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell pledged to police the program in place of the FTC, his agency yesterday said it would enforce penalties at least for the 400 companies that have registered.

In a last-ditch effort to salvage the start of the program, the FTC asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday for permission to enforce the registry until an appeal is decided. On Monday, a lower District Court in Colorado had denied an earlier request for a stay.

Officials from 45 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico joined the latest appeal.

With the national program in limbo, Maryland has no state do-not-call list to fall back on.

"Maryland consumers are being left to deal with the burden of these telemarketing calls," said Cheryl Hystad, executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition. "If Maryland had enacted their own do-not-call list, we wouldn't be waiting for what would happen on the federal level."

Several attempts have been made in the Maryland General Assembly since 1996 to create a do-not-call list, but they were defeated in committee.

"It was a piece of legislation that I heard more about than any other piece of legislation I introduced in the 16 years I was in the General Assembly," said former state Sen. Jean Roesser, who introduced do-not-call legislation four times. "Unfortunately, Maryland just didn't get on board."

Aggressive lobbying by companies that feared it would cut into business, such as Bally's Total Fitness and MCI Corp., which operate large call centers in Towson and Hunt Valley, helped defeat the legislation in Annapolis. Many newspapers, including The Sun, use telemarketing to attract subscribers and joined the Maryland-Delaware D.C. Press Association, a trade group, in opposing the legislation.

"When you consider that merchants need avenues to sell their merchandise, why take away the most effective tool they have to do that? Put yourself in the shoes of the businesses," state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton said last week. The Charles County Democrat chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which killed the matter last session.

Other states that approved do-not-call legislation faced similar opposition, but political analysts blamed weak lobbying laws in Maryland for helping smother the proposal before a full vote of the legislature could be taken.

Some companies such as MCI threatened to move jobs to Virginia. It is one of several nearby jurisdictions - including Washington and West Virginia - without a do-not-call list.

"If it ever got on the floor, it would pass in an instant," said Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at Johns Hopkins University. "The sentiment is so strong, if it ever came to a vote and you had to go on the record as voting against it, you would become extremely unpopular."

That's exactly what happened in Colorado after lawmakers there initially bowed to lobbyists and voted against a do-not-call list. Consumer complaints forced legislators there to revote and approve a program.

"We had to fight it through every single committee," said Rutt Bridges, chief executive officer of the Bighorn Center for Public Policy in Denver, the group that drafted the legislation. "It was never easy."

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