Was North Carolina's Broadband Law Influenced by Money?

Key legislators received significantly larger donations from telecom groups than their colleagues as controversial community broadband legislation was being debated.
March 23, 2012
 

By Brian Heaton, Government Technology Staff Writer

A new report is shining a spotlight on how much money North Carolina legislators received from cable providers during the debate over the “Level Playing Field/Local Gov’t Competition” act in 2010-2011. Now law, the act restricts the ability of local governments in the state to build publicly owned broadband networks.

Dialing up the Dollars: Telecommunication Interests Donated Heavily to NC Lawmakers shows that Republican lawmakers and sponsors of the act — House Bill 129 — received considerably more campaign contributions leading up to the 2010 elections from telecommunications donors than did their colleagues.

Written by Denise Roth Barber of the National Institute on Money in State Politics — a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that collects and analyzes data on campaign contributions — the report states that the political action committees of six telecom companies and two related associations gave $1.6 million to state candidates in North Carolina from 2006 to 2011.

The law, passed by the North Carolina Legislature last May, places significant deployment restrictions and imposes tax burdens on cities seeking to create their own high-speed networks.

Bills similar to HB 129 were proposed in North Carolina in previous years and were voted down by a Democrat-controlled Legislature. But in 2011, for the first time in a century, the state’s Senate and House were controlled by a Republican majority.

According to experts, the shift in political ideology might have been one of the contributing factors behind HB 129’s success. But while donating money to a political campaign is common, the amount given to some North Carolina raises the question of whether the funding had an undue influence on those voting for the bill.

Specifically, Rep. Thom Tillis, who became speaker of North Carolina’s House in 2011 and ran unopposed in the 2010 election, received $37,000 from telecommunications political action committees in 2010-2011. That figure is almost 10 times the amount he received during the prior two election cycles. Tillis voted in favor of HB 129.

The report also noted that other key legislative leaders such as state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown and Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt also received significant bumps in contributions from telecommunications interests in comparison to prior years. All cast an “aye” vote for HB 129.

When contacted by Government Technology, Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for Rep. Tillis, denied any correlation between the contributions to Tillis’ campaign and the success of HB 129. Instead, he argued that donation groups seek out legislators in top positions to contribute to their campaigns.

“Speaker Tillis has been on the record against municipal broadband since before he ran for the House,” Shaw said. “This is an issue he has a very simple opinion on, so there is no connection between the donations and his leanings on the issue.”

“I think it would be a much bigger story had Speaker Tillis received that level of campaign contributions that resulted in a changing of his position,” he added. “But that’s not what happened.”

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic and community development consulting group, said he thought a contribution like the one Tillis received was extremely high, particularly in a state race where Tillis had no one running against him.

Mitchell agreed with Shaw that on its face, the donations from Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink and other pro-cable associations may align with how Tillis feels about community broadband and isn’t evidence of corruption.

But since Tillis collected more money from telecommunications groups than any other North Carolina lawmaker, Mitchell said the bill may have been prioritized higher by Tillis, influencing its importance among fellow legislators.

“I’m not saying the money changed a person’s position, but these are not dumb organizations,” Mitchell said of cable providers. “Time Warner Cable knows why it’s giving money. It’s giving money to get results — and they got results.”

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