Proposals to sharply reduce state regulation of telephone companies so they would no longer have to receive approval to raise their rates, among other things, could be considered by the legislature before it adjourns the 2009-10 floor session later this month.
Backers of the bills include telecom giant AT&T - which reportedly helped write the legislation - and the cable industry, while opponents include smaller telecommunications companies, grocers, municipal electric utilities, the AFL-CIO, Citizens Utility Board and the Communications Workers of America.
AT&T and the cable industry have contributed $506,974 to candidates for statewide office and the legislature since 2003. Opponents of the measures contributed $643,193 to state candidates from 2003 through 2009.
Business interests, which are split on the measures, contributed $7.25 million candidates during the seven-year period.
The proposals, Assembly Bill 696 and Senate Bill 469, would give AT&T and other telephone companies the option of no longer being classified as telecommunications utilities. That means they would no longer have to receive approval from the state Public Service Commission to change their rates and they would not have to report profit and expense information to the agency. The measures also would strip the PSC's authority over consumer complaints about telephone service and telecoms also would not be required to provide land line service to all parts of the state.
Supporters of the measures argue they would create more options and improve prices through increased competition. The bill was sponsored by Democratic Senator Jeff Plale and Democratic Representative Josh Zepnick, both of Milwaukee.
Plale has received more campaign contributions from AT&T and the cable industry than any other legislative Democrat and ranks third among all of the 132 legislators for contributions by cable providers and the telecom giant. AT&T contributed $4,000 and the cable industry $6,446 to Plale from 2003 through 2009. Zepnick received $1,400 from cable providers and AT&T during the period.
The latest proposals come shortly after AT&T tapped Plale for a 2008 law that deregulated the cable industry and helped make it cheaper, easier and faster for AT&T to provide video products.
The law's supporters argued deregulation would lower costs and increase competition but a legislative audit released last December showed basic cable rates rose an average 21 percent in 2008 and 2009.