HOPE YOU GOT KISSED: When I pick up the morning newspaper, I like the jokes to stay where they belong — on the funny pages. But now that even the comic strips have become an ideological minefield, I suppose everything’s fair game. Still, I was hardly prepared for the full-page ad, in color no less, thanking the entire state Legislature and Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez for their visionary leadership in passing the most extravagantly corrupt piece of legislation to come out of the Statehouse in many moons. I figured the ad — featuring a beaming couple and their two children basking in the glow of their TV set — had to be some sort of spoof, a guerilla commentary on how every single member of the Assembly came together in a unified, bipartisan frenzy of greed and juice to pass AB 2987, otherwise known as the cable competition bill. I kept looking for the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, but it wasn’t there. The bill, which awaits signing by Arnold Schwarzenegger, will allow the phone companies to compete with cable companies for the hearts, minds, and wallets of California’s expanding market of roughly 36 million card-carrying televidiots. On paper, this sounds great. After all, how could anything that screws the local cable monopoly be bad? The problem is that we all get screwed, too.
The way it works now, cable companies negotiate franchise deals with the city and county governments in which they hope to operate. In exchange for their quasi-monopoly status, cable companies agree to surrender a smidgen of their revenues to pay for public access, education, and government channels. If the cable company doesn’t behave as promised, the citizens, armed with rakes and pitchforks, can storm their nearest City Council meeting and demand action. In Santa Barbara, such citizen input has been exceptionally effective. As a result, we now have something that’s relatively unique in California, an autonomous public access operation — funded by cable revenues — but privately managed and publicly overseen by an advisory board representing a decent cross-section of the community. But none of this could have happened without the leverage provided by the franchise agreement negotiated by our own City Council. Assuming Arnold signs the bill, that local control is out the window. In the future, such agreements will be negotiated with obscure state officials in Sacramento, indifferent, immune, and far from local residents armed with pitchforks. Gone as well is the requirement that service providers take care of the entire community, not just enclaves of wealthy consumers happy to pay for all the bells and whistles. Sure there’s language saying it’s not nice to discriminate against consumers on the basis of race or ethnicity, and there are no timelines mandating when and how phone companies entering the cable market must deliver what’s known as “full build-out.” Critics of this aspect of the new bill — led by the League of California Cities — argue that this glaring omission will exacerbate the digital divide already separating the rich and the poor.
In Sacramento, where legalized corruption is not merely a way of life but a highly advanced art form, the blitz unleashed by phone giants AT&T and Verizon will win the political equivalent of an Oscar, a Grammy, and an Emmy combined. According to press accounts, the phone companies spent in excess of $23 million in lobbying, TV commercials, and political contributions during the past few months. The state’s Fair Political Practices Commission boiled that down to $200,000 a day. That’s enough to give even the fittest of bag men a serious hernia. Directing the show on the inside was Fabian Núñez, and he’s very good. AT&T showed its appreciation by co-hosting a golf tournament at Pebble Beach that helped Núñez raise $1.7 million for the California Democratic Party. But AT&T also gave Republicans $35,000, and Schwarzenegger’s reelection effort $52,000. Aside from the cities and counties, the only real opposition came from the cable industry. Núñez responded by including language allowing cable companies to opt out of their deals with local governments.
After that, the cable industry started spending money of its own to ensure the bill passed. It worked. In the Assembly — where relations between Democrats and Republicans most resemble that of rival prison gangs — there was not one dissenting vote cast against the bill. In the Senate, there were only four. The last time we saw such unanimity over a major piece of legislation was in the late ’90s when Sacramento passed the now infamous energy bill that brought us the now infamous energy crisis of 2000 and the attendant price gouging by companies like Enron, Duke, and Reliant. California consumers and utilities were ripped off for many billions. Without the energy crisis, Gray Davis would never have been recalled as governor, and the Gubernator would not be in power today. I’m not saying that history will necessarily repeat itself, but it’s worth noting that the arguments to sell the cable competition bill and energy deregulation are almost spitting-image identical: By allowing greater competition, the consumer will enjoy greater choices and at lower prices. When was the last time you saw an industry — the cable companies — colluding with its competition so it could charge less for its wares?
Our man in Sacramento, Assemblymember Pedro Nava, voted with Núñez, his buddy and former roommate. According to Common Cause, Nava was not part of the gravy train, receiving only $1,500 in campaign donations during the past two years. But according to advocates of local control, Nava never made himself available to hear their arguments. Senator Tom McClintock — the Simi Valley right-winger who, by another manifestation of political corruption has come to represent Santa Barbara in the State- house — was far worse. According to Santa Barbara City Councilmember Iya Falcone — a big wheel with the League of California Cities — McClintock was openly hostile to her concerns. “When I mentioned build-out, McClintock told me that was kind of like asking BMW to build a franchise in South Central,” she said.
It’s only a matter of time before Arnold signs the bill. When he does, I fully expect to be notified that my cost for cable services will go down. The only problem is that I fully expect to read it in the comic section. At least that way I’ll know it’s supposed to be funny.