Ring Ma Bell

When heavyweight Southwestern Bell gets into a brawl with AT&T at the Legislature, consumers--that's you--are the ones who get beat up

Van de Putte says that although she filed HB 1701, she would not have supported the original version--the "wet dream" version. "It looks very much like Southwestern Bell and GTE [the company that monopolizes local phone service in rural Texas] would be enhanced by that bill. And I filed it just like that, knowing that during the legislative process, it would change. But you never start from your weakest point. I needed things in that bill that I knew I could give up."

For her troubles, Van de Putte, a 44-year-old pharmacist and mother of six, is being characterized rather crudely.

"I think it's a very wrong portrayal for anybody to tell me, 'Leticia, you're the ho for Southwestern Bell,' and yet that's what the other side would have you believe." Van de Putte says AT&T is threatening to assassinate her character during the upcoming election by using--what else?--ads. AT&T officials deny making any such threats.

Before this session, Van de Putte was known among legislators as a cheerful colleague since 1991 who had yet to become a major player. As she took on the biggest bill of her political career, she sought the assistance--and perhaps the cover--of Rep. Toby Goodman, an Arlington Republican who sits next to her on the House floor. The cigar-chewing lawyer with the thick, graying mustache is widely regarded around the Capitol as one of the good guys.

He shepherded the rewriting of the state's juvenile justice laws in 1995. He played watchdog over former Attorney General Dan Morales' bumbling child-support enforcement division. His name is mentioned by Capitol insiders as someone who, by all rights, should be the next House speaker except that everyone knows the lobby would never stand for it because of his independent ways.

Together, Goodman and Van de Putte thought they could marshal through the Legislature a telecommunications bill this session that would be good for consumers and make Southwestern Bell happy at the same time. They are finding out that they are in over their heads.

"These are two legislators who are experienced legislators, but not in telecommunications," says Edwin Rutan, AT&T's southwest regional vice president of law and government affairs and general counsel. "This is an incredibly complicated area. I do this 365 days a year, and I can't look at all those provisions without having to think about some of them for a long time to think through the implications."

As the pair's House bill languished in committee without a hearing, the sponsor of the Senate's telecommunications bill, who hadn't seemed interested in moving his bill first, suddenly decided to move it along. Sources say Sen. David Sibley of Waco was pressured into doing so by Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who presides over the Senate. Sibley called Bell and AT&T to the table to negotiate a compromise. The two companies agreed on a bill in mid-April that consumer groups and smaller phone companies opposed. The deal was struck even as the TV ad war was being waged on full throttle.

The bill passed unanimously on the Senate floor with no amendments and almost no discussion--something unusual for a bill of such magnitude. Perry reportedly had put out word that he wanted nothing introduced that could derail the so-called compromise.

Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington took to the microphone on the Senate floor as the bill zipped through the chamber and asked Perry jokingly, "Why the freight train?"

He didn't get an answer.
The Senate bill became the vehicle from which the House would debate telecommunications. But when it arrived at the House State Affairs Committee to be heard, it had been significantly rewritten. The new bill more closely resembled House Bill 1701--the original Bell wet-dream version--than the bill that had passed the Senate.

Van de Putte says she and Goodman oversaw the revisions in the Senate bill and insists Bell didn't call the shots. Yet during the committee hearing, Van de Putte and Goodman had to admit that some of the language in their bill conflicted with their intent. On the same night, the two offered 20 amendments to steer the bill closer to the form it was in when it passed the Senate. A few days later, they brought 38 more.

It all begged the question, Whose bill was this that stood before the House State Affairs Committee? It certainly wasn't the Senate's. And it did not appear to be Goodman and Van de Putte's.

Clearly, it was Bell's.
As Goodman stood before 15 peers who make up the committee, he was quickly losing face because he and Van de Putte had lost control of their own legislation.

"I was not invited to any of the negotiations on the Senate bill," Goodman told the committee sheepishly, with Van de Putte shaking her head that she hadn't either. "I don't know what was agreed to, because I wasn't there."

Then, in a burst of honest emotion that showed that Goodman is one of the good guys but also that he is overwhelmed, he confessed, "This may not be the greatest bill that this Legislature ever heard, but I'm going nuts with this damn thing...They [the Senate] decide they don't want to pass a bill. Then they decide they do want to pass a bill. Then they decide they don't want any amendments on the floor. And then people bring me stacks of amendments...And it's like, 'Well, Senator Sibley agreed to put this on, but they had a brokered deal over there, and he didn't put it on.' Well, I don't know! And if I sound frustrated, I am.

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