frank_talk (2007-13)

Big Bucks

The full-employment-for-lobbyist bill this year is about your cable bill

by Frank Cagle

Every legislative session there is a full-employment-for-lobbyist bill--some battle between well-heeled business interests requiring a squadron of wheeler dealers to advise our citizen legislators on what's good for the folks back home.

But the folks back home aren't paying the lobbyists, so let's take that with a grain of salt.

The fools who hire lobbyists never seem to realize their legislative goals are rarely achieved in one session--which requires them to hire the lobbyists for at least a second if not a third year. Why take $100,000 to pass a bill when you can take $100,000 a year for three years to pass the bill? Who is going to complain: The lobbyists on the other side who are being paid $100,000 a year for three years to fight the bill?

At some point the part-time legislators get tired of hearing about it and they tell the lobbyists to go in a room and work out an agreement. The agreement is the result of a negotiation in which the lobbyists with the most powerful legislators in their pockets have the strongest hand in negotiating the final bill.

If you as a consumer get screwed, it's a cost of doing business. Or, as they say in the military, you are collateral damage.

The full-employment bill for this session is a bill written by AT&T. It wants to negotiate an agreement with the state of Tennessee that allows it to offer cable services anywhere in the state. Since 1953 cable companies have been negotiating contracts with city and county governments to provide cable service. Knoxville and Knox County have various agreements with Comcast, Knology and Charter. They are regulated by the City Council and the County Commission. It's that way all across the state.

The cable companies are howling. At present, AT&T could come into any market and negotiate cable compacts, like everyone else. An agreement with the state would allow the company a jump start into any market and it will make it difficult for any cable company with a local franchise to keep AT&T out.

Theoretically local governments can hold a cable company accountable to see that service is offered to all residents and not allow the cable company to cherry pick the affluent neighborhoods--and ignore places like downtown, the inner city and the countryside. I would not suggest they do a very good job at it, however. Knox County doesn't even have agreements with three local cable companies; the commissioners argue it's because this pending bill makes the future so uncertain.

Commissioner Mike Hammond took over as chair of the cable committee last fall and seems determined to get a handle on the local situation. Knox County's regulation of local cable has been lackadaisical at best. Former cable committee chair Larry Clark, who left after being term-limited, was often frustrated in trying to get answers out of cable companies and trying to get up-to-date contracts.

I don't really have a dog in this fight. I gave up on all the sonsabitches a long time ago. I have a satellite dish for television and a satellite dish for broadband Internet. After begging BellSouth for three years to get me a DSL line for my business, to no avail, as far as I am concerned they can all go to hell.

I predict this session will result in the AT&T bill being sent to a "study committee." This is a favorite device of the lobbyists who don't want to get off the gravy train. A decision one way or the other means no more money from the well-heeled businesses. The bill in a "study committee" is laughable on its face--as if any of the legislators on the study committee know a damn thing about telecommunications or "study" in the summertime. No one really believes the legislators will ever make a decision on the matter anyway.   It just keeps the bill alive, keeps the lobbyists on the payroll and keeps the issue alive for the next session.

It would behoove you to ask your County Commissioner or City Council person if they are paying attention. They have the responsibility to regulate cable companies. Do they want to abrogate their rights to look out for you and turn it over to Nashville? Do they even know they are supposed to be looking out for you on the local level right now? Do they have cable? Do they get a bill for it? Have they ever read the local government contract with the cable companies? Do they know they don't have contracts?

Do they think the local legislators ought to be listening to them, rather than the lobbyists in Nashville in making this decision?

Do they give a damn?

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .