Wisconsin State Senate
Russ Decker: 'There's quite a bit of consumer protection in there [so] consumers don't get screwed over.'
Last Thursday, the state Senate passed the Cable and Video Franchise bill, which allows cable providers to negotiate with the state rather than individual municipalities. The bill was written with help from lobbyists working for AT&T, which wants to break into Wisconsin's cable market.
According to a study by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, "State senators who voted... to change the way cable television providers are regulated in Wisconsin accepted $1.2 million in campaign contributions from special interests that support the proposal compared to less than $100,000 to senators who voted against it."
While proponents, like Majority Leader Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield), contend the bill will ultimately benefit Wisconsin residents with more variety at a lower cost, critics say that by stripping municipalities of their negotiating power, that new services will be limited to urban areas at a high cost and at the expense of public access channels like City Channel 12 and WYOU.
Decker, who was named Senate majority leader on Oct. 24, replacing Sen. Judy Robson, promptly moved the bill from the committee he chaired and onto the Senate floor where it passed on a 23-9 vote. The bill passed the state Assembly in May; now, after some kinks are worked out, it will go to Gov. Jim Doyle, who is expected to sign it into law.
Decker spoke to The Daily Page on the eve of the vote about his new role, and his thoughts on the cable franchise bill.
The Daily Page: How is it being the big man in the Senate?
Decker: I don't know if I'm the big man in the Senate, but it's some added responsibility. You know, getting business done that needs to be done.
Why has the video franchise bill become a priority?
The video franchise bill is not a priority for me. I think there are different priorities I'd rather work on. You know, like making sure that middle-income people have a decent chance to make it, indexing minimum wage, [and] seeing to it that Healthy Wisconsin gets going again and making changes to make it a better product.
How did the bill make it this far?
Video franchising got put together last spring and was in the Finance Committee, which I chaired, for five months. The reason it didn't get through finance earlier was because it had spending in it for some of the positions at the Department of Financial Institutions, so I would've had to do an emergency clause and I didn't think it warranted that, so it sat in committee. And I made a commitment to Sen. Plale that when the budget was on the governor's desk, I would move the bill out of committee and that's exactly what we did.
Should funding for community-access channels should be eliminated?
I do believe there is a provision that would do a three-year sunset, so for at least three years these education channels would be funded.
But after three years, they go away, right?
Well, that's the bill. But, you know, in three years, you can always revisit it. Three years is a pretty good window for things to start changing.
Given the criticism around the bill, can you personally guarantee that it won't screw over consumers?
As I understand the bill, there's quite a bit of consumer protection in there that I think will be adequate to see that consumers don't get screwed over.
How involved was AT&T in drafting the legislation?
I really can't say. The only thing I had to do with it was when it was sent to the Finance Committee, and I didn't look at it all during the budget process. As I said earlier, when the budget was done, I took my first look at it. I had just one suggestion, that we add the three-year window to those public access channels and move ahead.
In what ways will I, as a resident of Wisconsin, benefit from this bill, especially if I enjoy watching public-access channels?
Well, you've got three years. A lot of changes can be made in three years if there's support, but right now, a three-year window is pretty good. People are going to have some competition, which I think is good. Hopefully we get more variety.
So, when it's all said and done, this bill, you believe, will be great for the residents of Wisconsin?
Oh yeah! I think the vote will be a bipartisan vote, and I saw some comments that the governor's going to look at it, and I think he'll look at it favorably, and we'll move on.
Do you have cable?
No. I have satellite. I had cable until about three years ago. I put satellite in because it was cheaper and had more variety. But, you know, I'd like to have some changes made with that, but that's something we'll have to work out.