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Politics

Telecoms pour money into lobbying

By LUCY MORGAN
Published February 22, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - BellSouth spent at least $1.6-million on Florida lobbyists last year, according to newly filed disclosure reports - more than twice as much as any other business spent to influence state government.

Why BellSouth and other telephone companies are pouring buckets of money into the political process is clear: They desperately want to pass a bill that would change the way consumers across Florida get their television, Internet and telephone services.

Billions of dollars are at stake in the all-out war between telephone companies and traditional cable television companies.

Telephone companies want the state to take over franchising and regulations traditionally handled by cities and counties, which they say would give consumers more choices at lower prices.

Cable companies and local governments say it's a bad idea that will cost consumers more.

Last year for the first time the state required lobbyists to disclose how much businesses paid them. The reports for 2006 just out this week show lobbyists awash in money from the telecommunications companies and, to a lesser extent, from the cable companies.

BellSouth spent the money on 31 outside lobbyists. The fee disclosure law allows corporations to report a range of fees instead of the exact amount. The range disclosed by BellSouth lobbyists is from $1.3-million to $1.8-million, with an average of $1.6-million. Those totals understate BellSouth's lobbying effort because they do not include the salaries paid to five additional lobbyists who were full-time BellSouth employees; they don't have to disclose fees.

In December BellSouth merged with AT&T, another telecommunications giant, that spent $601,000 to hire 19 lobbyists in 2006. Verizon and other telephone companies spent about $1-million to hire an additional 63 lobbyists.

On the other side, cable companies and the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association spent $571,000 to hire 34 lobbyists.

In addition to lobbying dollars, the money has poured in via campaign contributions. Over the past four years, BellSouth and AT&T put an additional $3.5-million into state political campaigns, and Verizon and other telephone companies contributed $1.8-million.

The cable groups, meanwhile, have dumped $770,141 into campaign coffers.

This year the combined AT&T-BellSouth conglomerate hired Core Message, a public relations firm operated by Cory Tilley, who was communications director for former Gov. Jeb Bush. The new combined telephone company has registered 46 lobbyists this year. A spokesman said not all of the lobbyists are working on the cable service fight.

The battle is being waged nationwide in the wake of federal decisions that make it easier for telephone companies to offer services traditionally provided by cable companies. To pass a similar law in California last year, AT&T and Verizon spent a reported $26-million to lobby lawmakers and another $1-million in campaign contributions.

More choices?

In Florida both sides are lobbying up for another round as the House moves to hear House Bill 529, dubbed "The Consumers Choice Act." It would allow the state to pre-empt cities and counties from issuing franchises. Scheduled for a hearing today, it is sponsored by Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa. The House passed a similar measure last year but it was never heard by the Senate, where it again will likely meet fierce opposition.

"It's really about opening the marketplace so consumers can have more choices, better services and lower prices," said AT&T spokesman Bill Marks. "Our vision is to be the only company that customers will ever want. We believe House Bill 529 will achieve all of this."

Cable television companies and the cities and counties that franchise them say the change would take decisionmaking authority away from local officials and put it in Tallahassee.

"Consumers will lose in the end. It's all about more money for the big telephone companies," said League of Cities lobbyist Sharon G. Berrian.

Opponents say the measure would allow telephone companies to "cherry pick" service areas, leaving low-income areas to others while concentrating on well-to-do neighborhoods that can better afford new services. Most cable company franchises require that they serve an entire neighborhood or city before branching out to new areas.

Steve Wilkerson, president of the Florida cable group, said the bill had been scheduled for an informal workshop before a House committee but instead was scheduled for a formal hearing today before the House Jobs & Entrepreneurship Council, which oversees committees.

Wilkerson questioned the speed the bill is picking up in the House.

"Why in the world is there a rush to judgment on this pro-telecom bill?" Wilkerson asked. "Why the rush to vote on a bill that is so important to the industry I represent and local governments and consumers?"

An alternative

House Speaker Marco Rubio said Wednesday that he has delegated the decision on where bills are heard to the councils that oversee committees. "We don't tell the council chair what to put on the calendar."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-Port Richey, a vocal opponent of other telecom bills, said he is introducing a bill that would give counties and cities more control over what happens to consumer services.

"The issue is big to the telephone companies," Fasano said. "Just like with the phone bill a few years ago, spending a few million to make hundreds of millions is a pretty good investment."

Times researcher Connie Humburg and staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Lucy Morgan can be reached at lmorgan@sptimes.com or(850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts:

The top five

Here are the five companies that spent the most money on lobbyists in 2006:

BellSouth: $1,639,993

Florida Hospital Association: $807,976

Hollywood Greyhound Track: $770,991

HCA Health Care: $739,488

GTech Corp: $728,500

Note: The fees are reported as high and low ranges. The numbers in this chart are the averages of those ranges.

[Last modified February 22, 2007, 08:10:18]


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