By Sue Fernandez
ANNAPOLIS – A bill that calls for equipping all state agencies with toll-free telephone numbers would make government equally accessible to all Marylanders, its sponsor said Tuesday.
Del. Cheryl C. Kagan, D-Montgomery, told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee that it is unfair for citizens in the 22 legislative districts outside the 410- area code to make long distance calls for some state services.
“People in 301- area codes are being double taxed,” she said.
Kagan said she decided to sponsor the bill when a constituent told her she’d racked up $12 worth of long distance calls when inquiring about a state scholarship for which her son had applied.
Currently, 61 state agencies have one or more toll-free numbers, said David Humphrey, public information director for the Maryland Department of General Services.
But Kagan said the numbers are not well publicized. Only four state agencies have a toll-free telephone number on their letterhead, while 25 agencies don’t publish their toll-free numbers, she said.
The state publishes a book of 800- numbers, but people have to travel to Annapolis to pick it up, she said.
Fifteen agencies are without a toll-free number, including the Injured Workers Insurance Fund, the Maryland Tax Court, the Office of the People’s Counsel, the Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board, the public defender, and the State Ethics Commission.
The Department of Fiscal Services could not estimate the total cost of equipping all state agencies with toll-free numbers.
However, in fiscal year 1995, the state’s 200 toll-free numbers cost $1.3 million. Fiscal Services said additional lines would cost $20 per month per line and 10.5 cents per minute of calling time.
Goldie Rivkin, president of Rivkin Associates, an urban development services business in Bethesda, wrote a letter in support of Kagan’s proposal. The state would be sending out a pro-business message by passing the measure, she said.
Rivkin said her employees sometimes have to make six or seven phone calls before reaching the state employee with the information they need for a project.
“Every follow-up call we have to pay for, and every minute ticking away on the toll-clock while we wait for attention suggests that business outside the 410- area code has a discriminatory burden,” Rivkin said.
Gene Lynch, Department of General Services secretary, also supports the bill.
“Every citizen should be able to reach the state,” he said at the hearing. “This is a way of leveling the playing field.” -30-