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WI: Residents also irked by action on cable

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Created 07/09/2007 - 10:08am

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Residents also irked by action on cable


FRI., JUL 6, 2007 - 10:11 AM

Some Madison residents who told an advocacy group they supported competition for cable television providers said they're angry the group implied to state lawmakers that they endorsed specific legislation affecting cable TV.

"If I knew it would've been used for lobbying I wouldn't have done it," said Alicia Ashman, a former Madison City Council member who submitted a postcard earlier this year in support of cable competition to the Milwaukee-based advocacy group TV4US.

Ashman said she responded to a solicitation from the group because she wanted lower rates from her cable company, Charter Communications. But Ashman said contrary to what TV4US told her state senator, Democrat Fred Risser, that she opposes AB 207 and SB 107.

The bills would replace local cable agreements with a single, statewide franchise that would let companies offer cable services anywhere in the state instead of having to negotiate with individual municipalities. Proponents say that would lead to lower cable rates by spurring competition. But opponents worry that the bills would reduce consumer protections and curtail funding for local public-access channels.

'Real alternatives'

Thad Nation, a political consultant and executive director of TV4US, denied that the group misrepresented Ashman and others in giving lawmakers the names and addresses of nearly 26,000 residents accompanied by a statement saying they support "bringing real alternatives to cable in Wisconsin."

He said the statements don't specifically mention the two bills.

But in a letter to lawmakers with the statements, Nation said the residents "have joined TV4US Wisconsin in support of AB 207/SB 107."

Risser said that was misleading.

Nation said Ashman and the others in Risser's district who responded to the group's solicitation by postcard should have known the group would share their views with lawmakers.

"The card says, Dear Elected Official, I support lower cable rates.' What we gave to lawmakers was that language," Nation said.

In addition to Ashman, several other residents of Risser's district told the Wisconsin State Journal on Thursday that they responded to solicitations by TV4US to support more competition for Charter and other cable companies. They include Beverly Crosson, a state administrative law judge, and Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.

Heck, who doesn't subscribe to Charter, Madison's only cable service, said he sent in a postcard to TV4US after Charter couldn't come to an agreement with the NFL Network to broadcast a Packers-Vikings football game. He said he opposes the cable competition bills and was upset that he was portrayed by TV4US as a supporter.

"That's not honest grassroots lobbying," he said.

Crosson said she responded to TV4US because she believes Charter and other cable stations should have competition. "To translate that into support for some sort of legislation is outrageous," she said.

Andy Olson, a Madison nurse, said he called a toll-free telephone number provided in a television or newspaper ad. The ad solicited calls to the number in support of lower cable bills, Olson said.

"It's a good lesson to learn," Olson said. "Before signing up for something that seems so black and white and clear it's probably good to ask some questions before giving your name and address."

He said he doesn't have enough information about the cable competition bills to take a position on them.

But Ronald Smith, a government worker, said he became a member of TV4US and supports AB 207 and SB 107.

"If there are more choices I just think it will be less expensive," Smith said. "I want competition."

Earlier this week Risser disclosed that such high-profile Madisonians as former mayor Paul Soglin and lawyer Ed Garvey were cited by TV4US as supporters of the legislation. Both men have publicly opposed the bills and said they don't know how TV4US got their names and addresses.

Several other Madison residents cited by TV4US as cable legislation proponents and contacted by the newspaper Thursday said they don't know how their names were obtained by the advocacy group. "I think that's abuse," Janet Johnson, a Madison real estate agent, said of the submission of her name to Risser. "I do support choice but that doesn't necessarily mean I support the bills."

AT&T hired lobbyists

The cable competition bills have generated plenty of controversy, and telecommunications giant AT&T has hired more than a dozen lobbyists to press lawmakers to support the bills. The company has said it's not feasible for it to sign franchise agreements with cities across the state and that it prefers a statewide franchise.

Meanwhile, TV4US has tried to build grassroots support for the legislation. AT&T and TV4US officials say the two organizations are separate although AT&T provides funding to TV4US.

Nation said that in late 2006 and early 2007 TV4US used postcard inserts in newspapers to solicit members for the organization.

One example he provided asked for a person's name and address and read, "Dear Elected Officials, Every day that Wisconsin families don't have a real choice to cable TV they continue to pay an extra 28% to 42% for cable TV. Please work to give families a real choice. Please oppose anything that makes us wait longer. I want my TV choice."

Another cited Charter's dispute with the NFL network, he said.

The group also ran television ads touting the toll-free telephone number and set up a Web site to gather names and addresses, he said.

So far, the group has received more than 30,000 responses, most by postcard, Nation said.

In April, the group gave state lawmakers the names and addresses of nearly 26,000 Wisconsin residents that the group said supported the cable competition bills.

Nation acknowledged that many of the postcards were mailed in by state residents prior to the introduction of the cable legislation. But he said it wasn't misleading that the group portrayed supporters of cable competition as supporters of the specific bills under consideration by the Legislature.

"We're for cable competition," he said. "The specifics of the legislation can be worked out."

He said people can "opt out" of their TV4US participation.

Last week, Risser and his aides began reviewing the stack of alleged supporters of the cable legislation TV4US provided him. They discovered the names of Soglin, Garvey and other opponents of the bill as well.

Sam-Omar Hall contributed to this story.

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