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As many as 16,000 Utahns stand to have their phones disconnected after the Utah Supreme court pulled the plug on the Lifeline program that subsidized phone service for low-income people.

"The Lifeline program in Utah is now dead," lamented Public Service Commission Chairman Ted D. Stewart.Ken Hill, spokesman for US WEST Communications, formerly Mountain Bell, said the utility supports the Lifeline concept, although the company challenged Lifeline's funding mechanism and sought Thursday's Supreme Court ruling.

"We didn't think the PSC had the authority to pluck money from our pockets to support other customers for other companies," Hill said.

The court essentially sided with Mountain States' claim that the PSC went beyond its authority in establishing a pooled funding arrangement in which 20 percent of the program cost would come from a surcharge on all intrastate toll calls. Mountain States claimed the pooling arrangement forced its non-Lifeline customers to subsidize not only its own Lifeline customers, but also those of other smaller companies.

The Supreme Court, in a 4-1 ruling, lauded the Lifeline program's goal of providing discount telephone service to low-income people, but ruled the funding mechanism was unlawful. Justice Christine R. Durham, writing for the majority, said the "unequal effect" on Mountain States' customers could not stand.

"Although desirable, public policy goals standing alone cannot support the commission's pooling order," Durham wrote. "Without clear statutory authority, the commission cannot pursue even worthy objectives for the public good."

Associate Chief Justice I. Daniel Stewart dissented, although he did not give his reasons.

Because the Utah Supreme Court is empowered only to either reject or affirm a PSC order in its entirety, Durham said, the court had no choice but to void the entire Lifeline program rather than simply the pooling arrangement.

Steward, the PSC chairman, said there is no immediate plan to begin cutting off Lifeline service, although he predicted smaller, independent telephone companies won't be able to afford to provide Lifeline services to their customers. He said the ruling raises a whole slew of questions that may have to be resolved by the Legislature.

Indeed, Durham suggested that the best approach would be to go through lawmakers.

"If the Lifeline program is in fact not feasible in the absence of pooling, the appeal to save the program must be made to the state Legislature," she wrote. "The Legislature can act to preserve Lifeline by statutorily granting the commission the power to order multicompany pooling."

Stewart expressed his hope that the Legislature will be accomodating.

"If the program is now dead, the only way to revive it is to go back through the rulemaking process, which would include another review by the Legislature," he said. "I'm hopeful the Legislature will again recognize this is well within the authority of the commission."