Representatives of the nation's local governments are again at the throats of the cable television industry and the Senate Commerce Committee.
But the flap is not over the heart of the panel's controversial telecommunications bill, passed last month, which would deregulate facets of the telephone industry and permit American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to offer new services. Instead, it centers on an increasingly important area for municipal officials -- regulating contracts between cities and cable systems.
"By rushing ahead pell-mell with a bill that throws present cable policy out the window and leaves nothing but a 'hands-off' policy in its place, the Senate Commerce Committee has flouted the legislative process, made a blatant giveaway to an industry that will have the status of a local monopoly and has reneged on previous promises to hold hearings," said New Orleans Mayor Ernest Morial.
Morial made the statement last week in announcing the opposition of the National League of Cities to the Senate legislation, unless the cable provisions -- inserted as last-minute amendments -- are pulled from the telecommunications bill when it reaches the Senate floor, possibly as soon as next month.
Support for the legislation by the National Cable Television Association ultimately hinged on the committee's adoption of the amendments, which were put into the bill only hours before it was approved by a 16-to-1 vote. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) was the only dissenter. Thomas Wheeler, president of the NCTA, praised the passage.
Wheeler said the bill "seeks to overcome the impediments to growth and commerce in telecommunications imposed by excessive regulation" and said it "properly balances the needs of cities to insure provision of public service at reasonable prices and the entrepreneurial needs of cable operators." s
Last year the league threatened to urge cities across the country to impose a moratorium on the award of dozens of pending cable franchises because of the NCTA's support for earlier cable deregulation legislation. That effort was cut off after the then-Democratic leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee withdrew the legislation, although the two organizations have been unable to prepare a model franchising plan for local governments.
This year's fight is no less bitter, nor less important, and the league has been joined by the U.S. Conference of Mayors in opposing the Senate action on legislation that was not considered in public hearings during this congressional session.
One of the amendments states that no local government "may establish, fix or otherwise restrict the rates" for the use or sale of cable channel capacity and requires the Federal Communications Commission to set ceilings on franchise fees that cable operators pay to local governments.
"The basic tools which cities use to ensure that cable systems operate in the public interest and according to contract specifications -- rate regulation and franchise fees -- would be denied to local governments," wrote Conference of Mayors Executive Director John Gunther, urging mayors to contact Senate members about the legislation.
The local government groups have been joined in their opposition to the cable provisions by the Cable Television Information Center, a Washington-based group that advises cities, on cable policy, the National Citizens Committee on Broadcasting and the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers.
"Rate regulation by local governments is the most potent way local citizens have of insuring that cable TV operators remain responsive to their franchise promises," said Harold Horn, president of the Cable Television Information Center.
In essence, the committee enacted the rate regulation prohibitions as part of the deregulation thrust of the bill. The NCTA has argued vigorously that other media do not have to deal with such rate regulation, and Wheeler has called it "government intrusion into media."
On the franchise-fee issue, the committee said in a report on the bill that it "is concerned only that without a check on such fees, local governments may be tempted to solve their fiscal problems by what amounts to a discriminatory tax not borne by competitors of cable to the long-term detriment of the public."
The legislative battle may be just the beginning of an even broader war between the municipal government groups and the cable industry. The NCTA has proposed even stronger limits on the local government role in cable television, including a federal prohibition against requirements that governments get mandated access to cable channels and a ban on numicipal ownership of cable systems.
The House telecommunications subcommittee held hearings on the state of local franchising last week, with Rep. Timothy Wirth (D-Colo.), the subcommittee's chairman, calling the session the beginning of a nationwide investigation of the franchising process.
Coincidentally, the forum gave municipal government representatives an opportunity to criticize the Senate legislation. Although subcommittee members essentially ignored the flap in the Senate, the House will be faced with telecommunications legislation within the next several months. The success or failure of the Senate controversy is likely to help shape that debate, too