Telephone and cable television companies, long among the most aggressive lobbyists in Washington, also are spending heavily to influence state and local governments on a range of issues, according to a study released today by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity.
The companies spent at least $77 million lobbying officials around the country in 2003 and 2004 alone, the analysis of public records showed. That number is likely to be low, however, because many states require only minimal disclosure of lobbying activities, according to the study.
Topping the list for lobbying was SBC Communications Inc., which spent $16.3 million during the two-year period. The Texas-based phone giant also has operations in California and 11 other states. Second was Cablevision Systems Corp., which spent $13.5 million. Verizon Communications Inc. was third at $11.2 million.
The companies were working to influence issues such as who can provide new services in localities and setting rules for protecting consumers. New York, Texas and California were the most heavily lobbied states. Companies spent $1.95 million in Maryland during the period and $875,000 in Virginia.
The phone and cable industries also gave campaign contributions totaling $56.8 million to state candidates between 1999 and 2004, according to the report.
"The phone business is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country, and government decisions can have a huge impact on our ability to serve customers," SBC said in a statement. "We take part in the democratic process to make sure policymakers are educated and informed on fast-moving, highly technical issues affecting our industry, our company and our customers."
Verizon spokesman David M. Fish said that "when the people of Verizon find elected officials interested in addressing the issues affecting our customers, our shareholders and the industry, we are encouraged and try to show our support."
A spokesman for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said the group had no comment.
On some issues, the two industries are on the same side. Both oppose efforts by cities around the country that are considering, or have launched, government-owned or -operated wireless networks to provide high-speed Internet access to residents at costs that are typically lower than those provided by the carriers.
With the support of phone companies in particular, more than a dozen states have passed laws discouraging or preventing localities from running services that compete with carriers.
But the cable companies and phone firms are bitter rivals over whether phone companies can offer television service over fiber-optic lines without being subject to the same local rules that govern cable companies.
In Texas, the phone lobby recently prevailed in getting such an exemption, but the legislature rejected proposals that would have prohibited municipal wireless Internet services.
Industry spending in the states is dwarfed by what is spent for federal lobbying. Verizon spent $81.8 million from 1998 to 2004, SBC $58 million and the cable association $36.7 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
But consumer activists say that the industries increasingly are using states as another way to get to Washington.
The phone companies, for example, could now point to the Texas video legislation as a model for what should become national law as Congress rewrites the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
At the same time, said Janee Briesemeister, senior policy analyst in Texas for Consumers Union, the industries are trying to block states from increasing consumer protections when they think the federal government is falling short.
"The momentum is moving toward federal deregulation of the telecom market," she said, "with not much of a role for the states."