WI: Cable industry, AT$T helped shape video franchising bill

Posted on April 17, 2007 - 4:47pm.

from: Madison.com

Cable industry, AT&T helped shape video franchising bill
Judith Davidoff
The Capital Times

A legislative drafting memo shows that AT&T and the Wisconsin cable industry had a heavy hand in shaping a controversial video franchising bill before it was introduced to the state legislature, critics of the bill say.

The Assembly Energy & Utilities Committee is expected to vote on the bill this morning.

In a March 21 memo, Mark Kunkel of the Legislative Reference Bureau details the "instructions" he said he received during a Feb. 20 meeting with James Barrett, senior counsel of AT&T Wisconsin, Buddy Julius, director of government affairs at AT&T Wisconsin, Tom Moore, executive director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association and Adam Raschka, aide to Rep. Phil Montgomery, R-Green Bay, the primary author of the bill. John Stolzemberg, chief of research services for the Wisconsin Legislative Council, was also at the meeting; Tara Corvo, an attorney from Washington, D.C., who also represents the cable association, joined the conversation by phone.

Among other instructions, Kunkel noted that he was directed to include a rebuttal to anticipated criticism that the bill would illegally supercede franchise agreements between cities and cable companies. Wisconsin's cities received approximately $31 million in franchise fees in 2004, according to the Department of Revenue.

University of Wisconsin telecommunications Professor Barry Orton, who provided the drafting memo to The Capital Times, said the document shows that the two industries affected by the bill "got together with the drafter and said here's what we want.'"

The Wisconsin Cable Communications Association has officially taken a neutral position on the bill, but this memo raises questions about their actual involvement, says Orton and Rich Eggleston, spokesman for the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities.

"They are being disengenuous to say they are officially neutral," said Eggleston, a critic of the bill.

Moore, of the Cable Communications Association, disagreed.

"To be neutral on a bill doesn't mean we're not very, very interested in the provisions in the bill," he said, adding that his members are "huge stakeholders in video in Wisconsin."

Moore said his group has been talking with legislators since a similar bill passed in Texas two years ago. He said their primary interest is that "regulatory parity" prevail in the bill. "If you're going to provide video in the state of Wisconsin, the same rules apply to all providers."

Currently cable providers are required to pay franchise fees to the cities in which they operate. The bill would remove that requirement.

AT&T has 15 lobbyists working to pass the bill and recently ran a full-page ad in The Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times that highlights the diverse groups that support the bill, including Citizen Action of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Merchants Federation, the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce.

Despite its heavy lobbying, however, AT&T officials have claimed that they did not write the bill for Wisconsin, but merely provided feedback.

"Numerous parties were asked for and gave input to the bill," said AT&T spokesman Jeff Bentoff in an interview with The Capital Times last month. Bentoff declined further comment on Monday.

But Eggleston said his group, which represents cities around the state, was not asked to provide input on the bill.

"If we're not at the table, too often we're on the menu," he said.

Kunkel, an attorney with the Legislative Reference Bureau, said there is nothing unusual about his office meeting with interested parties while drafting legislation.

He said it's up to the bill author to determine who gets invited to participate.

As for the Feb. 20 meeting with AT&T and cable industry executives, "the legislator requested we meet with them," Kunkel confirmed.

Montgomery did not return a phone call for comment on Monday.

Email: jdavidoff@madison.com

Published: April 17, 2007

( categories: State Franchises | WISCONSIN )