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State Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols is taking aim at a federal program that provides low-income people with free no-frills cell phone service for work and emergencies.

“We’ve got way too many people thinking the things they’re getting from the government are really free, and they’re not,” Echols told the Athens GOP Monday night. 

Phone customers pay 17 cents on their monthly bills into a fund that provides a $9.25 phone subsidy for people who qualify for food stamps, heating assistance or other welfare programs. About 700,000 Georgians take advantage of the subsidy.

Another PSC member, Doug Everett, has proposed charging $5 a month to people who get free cell phone service courtesy of the federal government, which he says would weed out fraud and abuse. Echols said he thinks 25 percent of recipients would drop the subsidy if they had to pay the fee. [Update: The fee passed by a 3-2 vote.]

Conservatives, including Echols, often refer to the phones as Obamaphones, even though President Reagan started the subsidy, known as Lifeline, in 1984 and President Bush expanded it to include prepaid wireless in 2005. (Echols wrongly insisted that President Obama instituted the cell phone subsidy in 2009.)

Echols seemed to struggle with a question about what someone who needed a cell phone to find a job but didn’t have $5 would do.

“Maybe I don’t buy that six-pack of Coke or that coffee, or maybe I don’t buy that lottery ticket or something else I might be spending my money on,” he said.

Of course, while some people surely squander their meager funds, not everyone can afford a cup of coffee, let alone a phone. Echols saids he hoped charities would pick up the slack, but the government can’t afford to provide the service. 

“I’m just saying, our country, where we are financially, we cannot continue to add entitlements and think it’s sustainable,” he said.

In other news, U.S. Rep. John Barrow’s son was arrested on drug charges Monday morning, ACC Attorney Bill Berryman has a potential conflict of interest in the Five Points parking lawsuit, and a man claiming to be a Seal Team Six member who caught Satan in a bottle was arrested and charged with shoplifting at Kroger.