The House of Representatives yesterday approved a bill setting federal standards for municipal regulation of cable television.
The bill, passed by a voice vote, would limit the fees that cities charge for a cable franchise to 5 percent of the cable company's gross revenue and, starting two years from now, would forbid cities to regulate the charges for basic cable service.
The bill also would prohibit ownership of a cable system by the owners of a local television station, owners of a daily newspaper published in the same community and local telephone companies. It would give cities the authority to require educational, public and government access channels. Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. plans to build cable transport lines for a District cable television system, but it does not own the system.
The bill, which is the product of extensive negotiations by the industry and the cities, will go to a House-Senate conference to resolve conflicts with a bill adopted by the Senate in 1983. Supporters said they expect the bill to be sent to President Reagan to sign before Congress adjourns later this week.
The bill helps to ease a conflict created when the Supreme Court ruled that federal cable television regulations could preempt local regulations. That was followed last summer by a Federal Communications Commission decision sharply limiting the role of local governments in regulating cable television rates.
Prior to those decisions, cable operators complained that patchwork local regulation sometimes led to excessive demands by cities.
Rep. Timothy E. Wirth (D-Colo.), chairman of the House subcommittee on communications, which drafted the bill, yesterday called it "sound public policy" that serves the needs of everyone involved. It is "a milestone' that helps "bring our outdated communications laws into the information age," he said.
Debate on the bill was limited, and there was virtually no dissent to the deal worked out last week by members of Congress, the National Cable Television Association, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Other provisions of the bill would require operators to make service available in all areas of a city and would allow viewers with back yard satellite dishes to continue to pick up cable transmissions that are not scrambled. Such viewers would be required to pay a service fee for programs received. The bill also provides guidelines for renewal of cable franchises.
In other action yesterday, the House approved a two-year extension for a program that allows employers to provide a wide range of educational benefits to workers tax-free. Without the extension, workers could have received tax-free assistance only for education directly related to their jobs. Supporters of the extension argued that such limitations robbed lower-paid workers of a chance to improve their skills.
The program expired at the end of 1983 and generally was expected to be extended in the 1984 tax bill. That effort failed, in part because of a dispute over whether such benefits should be subject to Social Security taxes. Several supporters of the two-year extension said that the question of taxing all fringe benefits needs to be addressed next year. The estimated cost of the two-year extension was $186 million.
The House also passed 300 to 87 a bill that would extend for two years a program that provides tax benefits to group legal service programs provided through agreements between an employer and employe.