The Cable Guys: Curious why a bill in Topeka might limit cable competition? Just follow the lobbying money

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In Topeka, when industry money and cash-hungry politicians come together, you get some curious ideas. And sometimes those ideas become law.
Cable industry money finds it way to Wichita Senator Susan Wagle
  • Cable industry money finds it way to Wichita Senator Susan Wagle

Among the battier notions dotting the 2014 agenda so far is Senate Bill 304. It's a pro-cable-industry measure that would outlaw cities from building out their own broadband services and make it harder for them to cooperate with new private companies to do the same. That doesn't apply retroactively, so it would help existing private cable companies maintain their monopolies.

The bill came as a surprise to startup broadband entrepreneurs, who might have figured that the Republican-controlled Kansas Statehouse would be pro - free market. But a measure that would stifle broadband competition isn't a surprise to anyone taking a close look at campaign-finance reports, which reveal that dominant cable providers in Kansas are among the most prolific lobbying interests.

The Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association brought S.B. 304 before the Senate Commerce Committee in January after spending last year joining with other entrenched Kansas cable providers to make several campaign contributions to that committee, whose 10 members didn't miss out on getting money from at least one major cable company or political action committee. All told, cable-related companies or associations poured $12,300 into the pockets of Senate Commerce Committee members in 2013 alone.

Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican who is chairwoman of the committee, has received $4,000 from the Kansas Cable TV Political Action Committee since 2004.

Julia Lynn, an Olathe Republican who is vice chairwoman of the same committee, has received $1,000 or more each from Comcast, Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable, and the Kansas Cable TV PAC since becoming a Kansas senator in 2007.

The bill was written by the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association, the board members of which include staffers for Cox Communications, Time Warner and Comcast, among other dominant cable providers in Kansas. It aims to protect those old-guard companies from new competition - for instance, Google Fiber, which has reached agreements with several cities in Johnson County to roll out its network and has already started building in Wyandotte County.

S.B. 304 has hit a snag in the Senate. A hearing scheduled for February 4 before the Commerce Committee was postponed after skepticism erupted around the initial version of the bill, which would impose state control over local efforts to build fiber-optic networks.

Among the naysayers was Kansas Rural Center executive director Julie Mettenburg, who said in a statement: "SB 304 appears to be a major step backward in the efforts of Kansas and our local communities to grow our own future in ways that best suit local needs."

Chanute's leaders figured that they had local needs in mind when they spent $20 million on a fiber-optic network. If cable companies kept hiking their monthly rates, why not let the city build its own or invite a competitor?

Because the KCTA would prefer to maintain cable's monopoly - an outcome that S.B. 304 would help ensure.

The KCTA's president is John Federico, a busy lobbyist in Kansas who also represents other companies and associations. Several members of the Commerce Committee enjoyed dinner on Federico's dime last year, according to lobbying records. Federico himself spent $2,192 on meals with Kansas politicians in 2013, and the KCTA spent $10,160 in lobbying throughout the year. That puts the association on a par with some of the biggest spenders in Topeka.

For a look at what that kind of spending buys, recall that gaming companies poured serious money into the Kansas Legislature for years, until the state came around to passing the Kansas Expanded Lottery Act in 2007. That's why Wyandotte County today has the Hollywood Casino.

Of course, after lobbyists get what they want, they tend to make themselves scarce. Gaming-industry cash has almost disappeared from the Kansas Statehouse. In 2013, gaming lobbyists spent little more than $2,000 in Topeka.

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