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

"I get questions from reporters: How much money did Bell give you? And how much money did AT&T give you? And I have [first-year legislators] threatened by one side or the other. I have people coming over and saying, 'Well, hell, we signed on to your bill. It's a great bill.' And they haven't read the bill!"

Both Van de Putte and Goodman know that if legislators actually read their bill, they wouldn't be able to understand it. Telecommunications policy is muddy at best, and the ever-changing language of the bill makes it next to impossible to decipher, especially for legislators having to deal with hundreds of other issues coming to a head in the waning days of the session.

"I find most of the House members are just scratching their heads, not knowing really what to do," says Rep. Kevin Bailey of Houston, who has an advantage over most because he sits on the State Affairs Committee. "This issue is so complex, most of the House--and I was in this category before I was on State Affairs--really doesn't know the issues and what to do on the issues.

"I'm going to try to get the best deal in terms of rates that I can, if I can figure out who's offering the best deal. But I'm not even sure on that."

It appears nothing can stop the Legislature from ramming through a telecommunications bill this session, certainly not the legislators' own sense of self-control. A few weeks ago, House members called Bell, AT&T, and other interested parties together for a private summit to try to hammer out yet another compromise. Inside the meeting room, the parties were greeted by a large drawing pad.

On the first page was a picture, drawn in black marker, of a choo-choo train engine pulling a freight car with "SB 560" written on the side--SB 560 as in Senate Bill 560, the telecommunications bill under consideration in the House. The train was leaving the station.

On the second page of the pad was a drawing of tickets alongside a hangman's noose. The message was clear: Hop on board or pay the consequences.

The third picture depicted smiling passengers inside a rail car effortlessly gliding along the tracks on a beautiful, sunny day. Those who hop on board this moving train experience bliss.

The final drawing was of a damsel in distress, tied to the train tracks, moments away from meeting her demise. See what happens to those who don't get on board?

They get run over.
The artist was Rep. Kim Brimer of Arlington, a member of the House State Affairs Committee. He says he was trying to add levity to the situation as well as make a point to the negotiating parties.

They surely noticed that Brimer's art exhibit did not include a sketch of a brakeman.

David Cole, Southwestern Bell's Texas president, has put aside an hour to have lunch with his wife, Sandy, and his two tow-headed toddlers, David and Brett. It's a rare treat for Cole, who directs Bell's government affairs and community relations from an office six blocks from the Capitol. One of the boys pointed to the building recently and said, "That's where Daddy lives."

During the legislative session, that's about right. Cole is the commander of an operation that spends about $12 million a year to influence the Legislature, according to reports the company files with the Public Utility Commission.

This legislative session, Bell enlisted 95 lobbyists. Another four represent Bell's parent company, SBC Communications Inc., and nine more lobby for the Texas Telephone Association, of which Bell is a key member.

The volume of lobbyists is obscene. But Cole says in his strong Texas accent that the number is deceiving. Most of those folks don't really lobby legislators, he says, but Bell wants to abide by state ethics laws, so it registers them in case a contact should occur.

It is true that much of a legislator's contact with Bell occurs outside of Austin, in the home district. Of Bell's 95 lobbyists, about 70 are employed by either Bell or SBC. Of those, about 60 are external-affairs managers, who are company emissaries fanned out across the state.

They are Bell's goodwill ambassadors; some serve on school boards, and all are active in chambers of commerce. They take part in community economic development and education projects. They are the faces behind Bell's investment in community involvement. The company spent $6.4 million from 1995 to 1997 in dues and membership fees, according to the reports it files with the PUC. In 1997, the dues included $74,750 to the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, $72,500 to the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, and $21,300 to the Central Dallas Association.

Bell's external-affairs employees are in the business of making friends with the movers and shakers in their communities, including legislators. Typically, they don't talk to legislators about the nitty-gritty details of legislation, Cole says.

"If there's an opportunity that they can talk directly to their legislator, we give them that opportunity," he says. "These folks are not involved in any strategic thinking as to where we are trying to take our company. But these people play a key role in their communities. I guarantee you, we don't have them out there as a focal point for our legislative agenda."

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