US politicians seek and receive funds from corporations to finance their political campaigns. Why, because corporations want access and influence. Have lobbying and financial donations corrupted the US political system? Well, that’s rather subjective, and regardless the system is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Consider the H.129 “Level Playing Field / Local Government Competition” bill that was passed last week by the North Carolina House. Some call it the “anti-broadband bill”, on the not unreasonable grounds that it stifles the ability of under-served communities to build their own broadband networks and services.
Bill proposer Rep. Marilyn Avila was accompanied to House meetings by Time Warner lawyers. Hence H.129 is also referred to as “The Time Warner Bill”.
Despite the expert evidence given and the weight of public opinion, the House passed the bill and it will now be heard by the NC Senate.
Looking at the voting results and the immediate conclusion is that party politics played its ugly part in the 81-37 result. Not a single Republican voted against the bill. In fact, 15 Democrats also voted in favour – in favour of a bill that ostensibly looks to “level the playing field” but in reality means that underserved municipalities and local communities face being regulated to hell and back if they even think about wanting to provide their own broadband services.
Why? What persuaded Representatives to support this piece of legislation?
Maybe it was because the telecoms/media sector spent over $600,000 on political campaign donations in the 2010 North Carolina elections? Fair question, and so we took a look.
Our data comes from the Follow The Money website, the site of the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It is subject to non-reported disclosures and transcription errors, although we have checked our facts very carefully.
In total, a staggering $39.7 million was donated to the North Carolina 2010 campaign, spread between House and Senate candidates, party committees and the High and Appeal Courts. The House got a $9.7 million share of this, spread between 268 candidates.
Of the $39.7 million total, $11.2 million was “candidate contributions” and a further $7.4 million was “party contributions”. That leaves just over $21 million from the corporate sector. So where does the “communications and electronics” sector sit in the rankings? (note that the NIMSP defines this sector as including TV & Movie Production/Distribution, Telecom Services & Equipment, Telephone Utilities, Electronics Manufacturing & Services, Computer Equipment & Services.) Well, it only ranks ninth when you omit “public subsidy” from the list, with $612,766.
The H.129 debate was won by 81 votes to 37 – in other words 69% voted yes.
Looking through the detailed records of those 118 Representatives, the communications sector made donations to these chosen few of $201,462.
Companies within the sector are listed below, together with the size of their total contribution to voting House Representatives, and the percentage of this given to those who voted in favour of the bill:
AT&T – $44,750 – 47%
Time Warner – $31,000 – 85%
CenturyLink – $25,250 – 77%
NCTCC – $18,000 – 79%
Verizon – $15,000 – 63%
Corning – $9,000 – 22%
Sprint Nextel – $2,750 – 55%
Microsoft – $3,000 – 67%
Other (small companies) – $52,712 – 13%
For those not familiar with all the companies in this list, CenturyLink describes itself as “a leading provider of high-quality broadband, entertainment and voice services over its advanced communications networks to consumers and businesses in 33 states,” and contributed $67,775.
NCTCC is the North Carolina Telephone Cooperative Coalition, and has donated $52,250 to elected officials and political parties. Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, NCTCC describes itself as “a coalition whose members provide high-quality state-of-the-art telecommunications services to the most rural areas of North Carolina.” It has eight member telcos.
Time Warner, whose influence on the bill is there for all to see, contributed $66,100.
A broad analysis shows that on the face of it, campaign money is not a factor, and it evens out. With 81 votes to 37, the money was split $103,510 to $97,952, or 51% to yes voters, suggesting that if anything, recipients of telecoms money tended to vote no.
However, there are some factors to consider. First, the “Other” group contains a staggering $30,258 to Democrat Rep. Hackney (a serious fund raiser who amassed $1.2 million for his campaign!). So if we removed this group from the analysis and just concentrated on the top 8 companies and associations, we see that money is now split $96,500 to $52,250, or 65% to yes voters. That’s a bit closer to the 69% actual vote result.
Hard to see the influence there. But take a closer look at those who received telecoms money against those who didn’t. Only 30% of those voting yes received telecoms contributions, against 70% who didn’t receive a cent. Those voting no were split 50:50. So in fact, it looks like telecoms contributions had a negative effect on the result, which would disprove popular opinion.
But Time Warner is the most “involved” company in this bill, so how did its influence show? Of the beneficiaries of its money, 8 voted yes and 8 voted no. Mind you, they didn’t waste that much money – the eight who voted for the bill received $14,250 from Time Warner, whereas the eight who voted against only got $3,750. Pretty good return.
As bill proposer, Marilyn Avila has come in for a lot of attention. She received $3,000 from the telecoms sector towards her 2010 campaign, with $500 from Time Warner. She received a further $500 from AT&T and $1,000 apiece from CenturyLink and NCTCC.
House Speaker Thom Tillis and Rep. Grey Mills both voted for the bill, effectively derailing the community-owned MI-Connection cable system in Mecklenburg and Iredell counties (which they represent). Tillis received $5,000 from Time Warner, plus $3,500 from NCTCC, $6,000 from CenturyLink, and $8,000 from AT&T (almost $29,000 from telecoms in total). Mills on the other hand, received nothing. Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Faison who was outspoken in his criticism of the bill, matched Avila’s Time Warner contribution with $500 of his own.
Of course the unquantifiable result of campaign donation is the influence recipients have on other Representatives. How do the House members decide their vote – do they listen and follow others’ leads? And if so, is it the ones with the telecoms money that are doing the most influencing?
There is no clear-cut answer to all this. But one thing is certain – campaign donations lead to voter mistrust. So long as politicians continue to receive money from corporations, then, no matter what assurances of impartiality they give, there will always be the suspicion of influence. And this isn’t just a fact of US politics – it happens the world over.
We’ve provided the raw data, so we’ll leave you to make up your own minds. But perhaps a bigger influence on the outcome of the H.129 vote than campaign donations (although they are closely linked) is lobbying and legal support. Refer back to the House meeting on 4 March and the accompanying picture on this page of Avila with one of Time Warner’s lobbyists and write your own caption.
Meanwhile, local news station WRAL-TV sought comments from the two opposing camps after Monday’s meeting. They quoted Avila as saying that businesses need protection from “predatory” local governments:
“We have to have some sort of framework that everybody understands when you go into this. This bill is going to establish those rules. It is not anti-competition. The cities can enter into it [broadband service]. It is not going to be easy, though. It’s going to be tough.”
Democrat Rep. Bill Faison countered that “tough” doesn’t cover it:
“This bill will make it practically impossible for cities to provide a fundamental service. Where’s the bill to govern Time Warner? Let’s be clear about whose bill this is. This is Time Warner’s bill. You need to know who you’re doing this for
Jay Ovittore of public network advocacy group SEATOA
“They’re making it out to be a bunch of folks in sweatpants that want to download Netflix faster. That’s not the case at all. The reality is that this is about job growth and economic development, and they’re failing to catch that point. It’s a crucial infrastructure. It’s a bad bill, it’s a bad bill, it’s a bad bill. And we fully intend to make this an election issue
And so to the Senate…
The Bill was received from the House by the Senate on Tuesday. It passed its first reading and was referred on to the Committee on Commerce.
To be continued…
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