Cable executives expressed confidence that a bill will pass
in Wisconsin that stiffens requirements for municipalities that wish to get into the
The optimism exists despite the fact that the bill is
opposed by the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, which sees the law as too restrictive.
Despite its opposition, the league, too, believes the
legislation will pass. "Yes, it probably will go forward. The cable industry has made
substantial campaign contributions," executive director Dan Thompson said.
Senate Bill 331 -- sponsored by Democrats, the majority
party in that house -- has already passed out of committee and headed for the state Senate
floor. Assembly Bill 670 -- sponsored by Republicans, the dominant party in that house --
will be heard in committee March 14.
Both bills would level the playing field in cable
operations, Wisconsin Cable Communications Association executive director Tom Hanson said.
Municipalities will have to launch and operate
telecommunications businesses without resorting to general-obligation bonds for financial
support. Bond money is obtainable at a lower cost than a private firm would have to pay
for start-up capital, and that's unfair competition, according to the cable industry.
Thompson argued that municipalities need the option of
issuing bonds at least at start-up, even if the venture intends to be self-supporting.
Further, the legislation would subject communities to the
same type of record-keeping and accounting for franchise fees, pole-attachment costs and
other debits that a private operator does. Thompson said current open-record laws provide
greater light on revenues than those applied to commercial ventures.
The WCCA is pursuing the legislation despite the fact that
few municipalities have shown any interest in privatizing telecommunications. There is
only one city-owned system in the state: Oconto Falls built its own cable system, but only
in the absence of interest from a commercial operator.
"There are no city or village officers beating on our
doors regarding telecommunications," Thompson confirmed. But circumstances change,
and the cities want their options left open.
Hanson noted that three communities -- Sun Prairie,
Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids -- have applied to the state Public Utilities Commission
for the right to get into cable. Those communities are already served by commercial
"There's not a private business in the state that
wouldn't face bankruptcy if competition came in without [similar] tax burdens," he
Amendments to the legislative versions have already caused
the Wisconsin Alliance of Cities, which represents larger population centers, to drop its
opposition, Thompson said. Similarly, the state's 91 municipal utilities have not spoken
against the bill.
The Wisconsin legislative session lasts until the end of
March. "We think we can get it done," Hanson said.