Thursday, March 29, 2007

Phone Friends

Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch and Representative Phil Montgomery have a lot in common, and as of late they have both become fast friends with AT&T.

AT&T badly wants legislative approval of a controversial proposal to let the state license cable and data providers instead of letting local communities continue to pick their cable provider. The phone giant wants to break into the cable market in Wisconsin and this proposal would let AT&T go wherever it wants much faster than having to deal with all those pesky local communities, one by one.

Montgomery is one the bill's lead sponsors and the measure must have Huebsch's OK to pass the Assembly. Huebsch and his Republican colleagues control the Assembly 52-47.

Turns out AT&T barely knew Montgomery and Huebsch existed until last year. From 1998 through 2005, AT&T employees or political action committees had contributed only $300 to Montgomery and $800 to Huebsch.

In 2006 when the proposal was being developed, AT&T contributed $2,250 to Montgomery's campaign and $1,225 to Huebsch, and a few months later out pops the bill AT&T wants.

It also turns out Montgomery's proposal is not exactly homegrown. It comes from a group called ALEC, which stands for American Legislative Exchange Council. This Washington-based conservative think tank is a bill mill, penning numerous anti-regulatory, anti-tax and pro-business proposals and encouraging state legislators around the country to offer them up at home.

And critics say the problems don't stop there. Like a lot of plans to deregulate or preempt local communities, consumer protections are weakened. Unlike now, the bill does not require advanced notice of rate increases or that customer bills are credited when service is interrupted for four hours or more. Customers also lose the right to have service repaired within 72 hours, among other things. Others say it would reduce or end locally made cable programs for kids and others, and the state could not deny a license to a company even if it looks like the provider could go belly up the next day.

Montgomery and other supporters say the bill is intended to spur competition and reduce the price of cable. Be that as it may, we're curious to see how often AT&T pops up on campaign finance reports filed later this year and early next year by the legislators who support the proposal.

And let's not forget about Democratic Governor Jim Doyle if this proposal passes the legislature and gets to him. Doyle says he has problems with the bill as is because of the diminished consumer protections. But Doyle has seen a lot of proposals he likes that take away power from local communities and give it to the state.

Doyle has received $36,157 in contributions since 1998 from employees and PACs of AT&T, one of his most generous corporate backers. In addition, AT&T was among seven companies that gave $25,000 each to help pay for Doyle's 2007 inaugural party.


Peter said...


Well I guess "business as usual", huh?

Clearly this bill is a greedy anti-reg grab being pushed by the monster AT&T corp.

But, this post has a little too much "Critics say ..." commentary in it. How are we supposed to evaluate whether or NOT the bill will encourage healthy competetion? Where do we find an analysis of the actual issue, beyond the IMPLICATIONS that the interested parties are not only interested but VESTED?

Perhaps we should force the abandonment of this bill JUST BECAUSE of its origin and so that we can start our own discussion?

What if we want to "spur competition and reduce the price of cable" but at the same time we want to ensure that consumer protections are not weakened?

We need this conversation ...

I thank WISDC for keeping the money trail hightlighted. And I hope, that sometime/somehow, we find a mechanism for actually conducting subtle policy debate in public.


John Foust said...

And after watching Montgomery for more than six hours in the hearing for AB-207 last Tuesday, more than once I imagined AT&T slipping that pre-written bill into his pocket along with a campaign contribution.

During the hearing, he described how the bill had been developed over the course of many months during meetings with AT&T reps. Several interested parties spoke and described how they'd asked to contribute to the drafting process but were rebuffed by Montgomery.

The franchising process is not a significant barrier to entry into any city. No one can point to one that was rejected or even that was in significant dispute. AT&T would only need to enter a handful of cities in order to be able to sell to the majority of households in Wisconsin. What they want to avoid is local oversight, plain and simple. The bill strips oversight from local officals, pretends to hand it to DFI, then strips their powers, too.