Big telecommunications companies spent more than $134 million -- 19% of it in California -- in recent years currying favor with state lawmakers in efforts to blunt competitors and push through favorable legislation, according to a study to be released today.
The Center for Public Integrity found that the telecom firms spent $56.8 million on political contributions in the last six full years and at least $77.8 million on lobbying in the last two years.
The study is the first time the Washington-based nonpartisan group has taken a state-by-state look at an industry’s political activity. With poor reporting laws in many states, the numbers gleaned are conservative, said John Dunbar, the study’s author.
The report is part of a three-year project examining federal and state lobbying and campaign spending by telecom companies. The center previously reported that the industry spent more than $500 million at the federal level.
The telecom firms’ spending habits helped them curtail telephone competition, shelve consumer protection bills -- especially the nation’s first one in California -- and keep regulators off their backs, Dunbar said.
“What’s amazing is how powerful the telecom companies are,” he said. “This shows who’s pulling the strings in the states.”
The telecom group includes cable, satellite and broadcast companies, but the regional phone giants, particularly SBC Communications Inc., “are still the kings for now,” Dunbar said.
In California, as in the nation, SBC has been the most politically active telecom company. It gave $10.1 million to state politicians nationwide, $2.9 million to California lawmakers, from the start of 1999 through 2004. And in the last two years, SBC spent an additional $16.3 million on lobbying state politicians and regulators, including $5.4 million in California.
SBC spokesman Dave Pacholczyk said telecommunications is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the nation. SBC, he said, wants to “make sure policymakers are educated and informed” on highly technical issues.
Considering that SBC is one of the largest employers in California and the other 12 states where it is the dominant local phone company, he said, “it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we place a high priority on making sure our voice is heard.”
According to the California secretary of state’s website, lobbying by all utilities, including water and power companies, amounted to $27.1 million for the last two full years.
The utilities group ranked sixth among 18 broad-based industries, with local government topping the list by spending $69.8 million on lobbying. Others were healthcare at $46.4 million, manufacturing at $41.7 million, financial services at $34.7 million and education at $28.2 million.
As the nation’s biggest telecom market, California commands attention for what its lawmakers and regulators do, Dunbar said. So it may be natural that it is the industry’s biggest state for political activity. California attracted a total of $10.3 million in donations and $14.4 million in lobbying from the industry.