AT&T Kentucky President Mary Pat Regan recently wrote the newspaper to take issue with a CJ editorial questioning the company’s crusade to achieve “communications modernization” in Kentucky.
“Communications modernization” is nothing more than a euphemism for communications deregulation, a concept the results of which, if implemented, cannot be guaranteed to best serve the interests of many Kentuckians. The most immediate result would have been an end to AT&T’s existing obligation for providing basic telephone service as a carrier of last resort. This is precisely the reason the Kentucky House of Representatives this session opted to proceed cautiously in considering Senate Bill 88, commonly known as the “AT&T bill.”
AT&T took a heavy-handed approach to its advocacy for passage of Senate Bill 88. Legislators are used to that. However, in this instance, I was disappointed over the company’s tactics and the often overtly political tone of the discussion.
It became apparent early on that although Ms. Regan is the face of AT&T in Kentucky, she was not directing the company’s strategy in lobbying the legislation. Her superiors in the company, its numerous contract lobbyists, an astroturf group called “Citizens for a Digital Future” that passed itself off as a grassroots organization while being funded by the company, and political strategist Scott Jennings, who orchestrated robocalls into House members’ districts to stir up phone calls and emails based on incomplete descriptions of what the bill did and did not do, all contributed to a less-than-ideal environment in which to thoughtfully consider the unintended consequences of “communications modernization.” Couple that with not-so-subtle threats of 527 groups organized with the specific goal of defeating House members opposed to the bill (likely run by Mr. Jennings) and it is no small wonder the legislation was met with skepticism.
In the face of all of this, at her request, I spoke on several occasions with Ms. Regan and encouraged her to meet with the stakeholders voicing the strongest opposition to the bill: the AARP, the Communications Workers of America and the Kentucky Resources Council. Some of these discussions did take place, but not enough of them and not at a depth and substance that resulted in meaningful compromise.
Still, late in the session, at the governor’s request, House and Senate Leadership worked until the very last hour in the hopes of brokering a solution that would provide AT&T the marketplace flexibility to achieve the “modernization” it says it wants, while simultaneously protecting seniors, the disadvantaged and citizens living in areas where wireless service is not available or is inferior, from diminished access to needed communications services and from unconscionable cost increases for those services. Despite these efforts, we were not successful.
Kentucky, like all states, needs and wants modern communications services and the infrastructure investment needed to provide those services as conveniences to our citizens and as tools to achieve optimal economic development. As policy makers we want to provide AT&T and its competitors in the communications business with an environment conducive to the achievement of their goals and ours as well. However, AT&T’s adoption of a “my way or the highway” approach to advocacy has long been known as a losing proposition when it collides with the realities of the legislative process. I hope AT&T has learned something from what happened this session, and I look forward to working next time with Ms. Regan and any other AT&T representatives who might be genuinely interested in finding a solution that works for all Kentuckians.
Representative Larry Clark
House District 46