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By Andy Sher
NASHVILLE -- AT&T and the cable television industry spent as much as $11.2 million through Sept. 30 fighting over AT&T's unsuccessful efforts this year to push a statewide cable franchising bill through the General Assembly, lobby disclosures show.
Much of the money went toward efforts to sway public opinion and legislators through areas such as television advertising, according to disclosures filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission and interviews with officials.
The AT&T bill sought to do away with cities' and counties' ability to license cable operations locally in favor of a statewide licensing or franchise system. All indications are the fight will resume in the General Assembly in January, and the Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association recently began airing new television ads attacking AT&T.
Disclosures show both sides and their allies collectively spent between $10.7 million and $11.2 million on lobbying and related activity for the year ending Sept. 30, 2007. The figures are contained in reports covering the periods Oct. 1, 2006, to March 31, 2007, and from April 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2007. The latter report was due last week.
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AT&T lobbyist disclosures show AT&T spent $600,000 to $700,000 to hire 26 lobbyists to represent the company on the legislation. AT&T reported spending an estimated $2.85 million on lobbying-related expenses. Any lobbying-related spending above $400,000 is rounded off to the nearest $50,000 on disclosures.
AT&T spokeswoman Terri Denard said the lobbying-related expenditures would have gone toward items such as television advertising, polling and direct mail but declined a request to provide specific breakdowns.
"We feel it's important to communicate to the consumers of Tennessee and elected officials the benefits of statewide competition and choice as well as the most advanced technology available in video, voice and Internet services provided by AT&T," Ms. Denard said of the spending.
AT&T is expected to promote approval of the bill again when lawmakers reconvene in January, but Ms. Denard stopped short of saying the company would do so.
Disclosures also show TV4US, a telecommunications industry trade group of which AT&T is a member, spent from $1.6 million to $1.7 million on four lobbyists and lobbying-related expenditures such as television advertising. Ms. Denard described the group as a "third-party organization that represents consumers."
Campaign finance watchdog Common Cause charged TV4US is the "very definition of Astroturf: an industry-backed campaign that gives the appearance of widespread grass-roots support."
Efforts to contact TV4US national officials on Monday were unsuccessful.
The Tennessee Cable Telecommunications Association reported spending $400,000 to $500,000 on four lobbyists and $5.1 million on lobbyist-related expenses.
Cable Association President Stacey Briggs said the bulk of the group's lobbying-related expenditures -- or $3.35 million -- came from "in-kind" cable advertising provided by the group's members, such as cable provider Comcast.
"We are getting our message out to the pubic," Ms. Briggs said.
"AT&T is really trying to gain an unfair advantage over us," she said. "They are trying to dismantle the local franchising process that's been in place."
Ms. Denard said that more than 75 percent of Tennesseans favor competition.
Disclosures show Comcast spent from $150,000 to $250,000 for its one lobbyist and between $25,000 and $50,000 on lobbying-related expenses.
Cities and counties, which have their own lobbyists, strongly opposed the AT&T bill.
But Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey recently said that "some apprehensions some folks had, including me, have been cleared up or eliminated."
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield is waiting to see what changes AT&T plans to make, said city lobbyist Matt Lea.
"The mayor's for competition," Mr. Lea said. "We want variety in Chattanooga. However, we want to be able to maintain the city's rights."
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