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WI: AT$T doles out $54,000 ahead of cable bill debate

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Created 04/21/2007 - 11:09pm

from: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [1]

AT&T doles out $54,000 ahead of cable bill debate
Doyle, lawmakers say money won't affect stands on deregulation legislation

Posted: April 21, 2007

Madison - Communications giant AT&T pushed a controversial bill to have state government license cable systems by showering more than $54,000 in campaign cash on dozens of lawmakers and Gov. Jim Doyle over the past 15 months.

Campaign-finance records show that AT&T's political action committee gave a total of $10,000 to four legislators and the Assembly Republican Campaign Committee in the past two months, when legislators negotiated details of the complex package with AT&T's 15 registered lobbyists.

AT&T is launching its own Internet-based television service, called U-Verse, to compete with cable systems.

It's unusual for one special-interest group to donate so much after November elections. The next partisan elections are 18 months away, and $1,000 went to the chief Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) five weeks ago, even though Plale won't need the money until his re-election in 2010.

Three other senators each got $1,000 donations on Feb. 19 from AT&T's political action committee: Democrat Jon Erpenbach of Middleton, who also isn't up for re-election until 2010; and Roger Breske (D-Eland) and Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), both of whom are up for re-election next year.

One version of the bill is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the Republican-controlled Assembly. The same or a similar bill could also be debated the same day in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats.

The bill would require the state Department of Financial Institutions to give permanent franchises to qualified applicants, put a 5% cap on fees paid local governments and extend consumer protections to satellite providers. It would end the 30-year practice of local governments issuing cable franchises.

"It's impossible to not see the connection" between AT&T's campaign cash and its push for the deregulation bill, said Mike McCabe, executive director of the non-profit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which monitors campaign donations.

AT&T's recent campaign gifts are also unusual because company officials haven't been "particularly active" givers in past years, McCabe said. "The giving is targeted."

AT&T spokesman Jeff Bentoff disagreed.

"That's absolutely wrong," Bentoff said. "Giving is never done with specific outcome, or bill, in mind."

Dozens of groups, and leaders of local governments, are lobbying for and against the bill, Bentoff said. Local government leaders "have been very active" in arguing against provisions of it, he added.
Influence denied

Doyle, Republican leaders pushing the bill and Plale all had the same response when asked about the AT&T campaign checks: The money won't influence their decisions or votes.

"It's not a factor at all," said Doyle, whose re-election campaign got about $13,000 from AT&T workers last year and who would have to sign or veto what the Legislature passes.

"I'm not going to sign this into law unless I'm confident that the consumers are protected," the governor said.

Doyle said he didn't like the first version of the bill, because it ended consumer protections such as credits for cable outages and 72-hour repair deadlines. Some of those problems have been fixed, he said.

"I don't think it's money talking," said Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem), whose personal campaign fund got $1,100 from AT&T employees last year, according to state Elections Board records.

But the Assembly Republican Campaign Committee, which Huebsch controls, got $6,000 from AT&T's political committee in February.

Huebsch and Republican Rep. Phil Montgomery of Ashwaubenon, the chief Assembly sponsor, both insisted the changes will bring competition so consumers would no longer be stuck with cable service - and rates - set by local governments.

"Bring in competition to lower these bills," Montgomery said.

He said opponents of the bill want to focus on other issues to avoid having to talk about why the changes are needed.

Over the last 15 months, Montgomery got campaign donations of $1,500 from AT&T executives and one of their spouses in Texas and $1,500 from a senior AT&T executive in Wisconsin.

"It takes money to run for re-election," said Montgomery, who called himself a national leader on the issue of statewide video franchising. "I know this issue to the nth degree."

Plale said he did not know why AT&T's political committee on March 15 gave his campaign fund $1,000 - the maximum allowed from a PAC during the current four-year term.

"That just means (AT&T) won't be giving down the road," Plale said. "I committed to working on this bill months and months ago."

Campaign-finance records document these widespread donations over the past 15 months by AT&T:

• Donations to more than 50 of the 132 legislators. Most of the donations went to Republicans, who control the Assembly, 52-47.

• Although AT&T's political action committee gave $6,000 to the campaign committee of Assembly Republicans in February, it didn't neglect Democratic committees. AT&T also gave $3,000 to Democrats, who control the Senate, and $2,500 to Assembly Democrats.

Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel, reporting from Milwaukee, contributed to this report.

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