Apr. 25--As telecommunications deregulation heads toward the floor of the Senate this week, Colorado Common Cause has compiled figures on 1994 campaign spending by the players with the biggest stakes in the outcome.
Its conclusion: Money talks. According to Common Cause, based on filings with the Colorado Secretary of State, US West plunked down $56,150 to individual candidates, state committees and the governor's campaign last year, double the $27,128 contributed in 1992. US West's own figures show it contributed $63,639 last year, compared with $39,642 in the previous election year.
The Colorado Cable Television Association, which represents a consortium of cable operators statewide, gave $2,200 to individual state races, while cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. channeled $25,000 last year into state Republican and Democratic campaign coffers and the governor's race.
Long-distance giant AT&T PAC-Mountain States contributed $7,700 to Colorado candidates in 1994, and MCI Communications Corp. gave $5,250 to individual state campaigns and $1,000 to Citizens for Romer.
``Based on the campaign contributions given by US West, I would bet on them to win the legislative battle'' over telephone deregulation, said Ric Bainter, executive director of Colorado Common Cause.
``There are (large) amounts of money being put into this debate from both sides. Our concern is where the public at large - the people who don't make large contributions and finance lobbyists - fits in. Are they being represented in this debate?''
Last month, the Colorado House unanimously approved HB 1335, which opens the local telephone market to competition by July 1, 1996. It would allow a host of new providers - long-distance companies, cable operators and cellular providers - to offer basic phone service to homes and businesses, a potentially lucrative new line of business for them.
US West, with 98 percent of the phone lines in the state, has the most to lose if local service becomes a commodity that consumers can buy from a number of vendors. It wants to make sure it isn't left as a provider of last resort and with no way to adjust its rates to remain competitive in more lucrative markets.
The House version tries to protect consumers from abrupt price increases by letting phone companies raise residential rates, but only by the amount of their actual costs, minus any productivity gains the companies realize due to technology efficiencies.
Last week, the Senate Business Affairs and Labor Committee radically amended the bill. Instead of writing consumer protections into the bill, it orders the Public Utilities Commission to study the cost of basic service and report back to the General Assembly next January when the legislature would decide whether to cap rates or allow them to rise. If the latter, the PUC is to recommend how it should be done.
More worrisome to the coalition of potential competitors, however, are two other amendments. One would allow the PUC to authorize tax credits for incumbent phone companies to help them write down their investments in infrastructure. The other would create a stranded-investment fund. Competitors would have to pay into the fund, which would be used to pay down the value of existing telephone facilities.
What the Senate will do with the bill is unknown. However, political observers point out that campaign contributions may be far less significant than the relative size of the players and their importance to the state's economy.
US West is Colorado's largest employer, with 17,081 employees and an annual payroll in the millions. It's also the state's biggest company, with a market value of $16.4 billion.
On the other hand, long-distance companies AT&T and MCI Communications Corp. have 11,582 and 4,065 employees, respectively, statewide. And Tele- Communications Inc., headquartered in Englewood and the nation's largest cable company, has 1,961 employees here. Add them all together and they top US West's employee count.
And TCI's market value, at $13.7 billion, makes it Colorado's second-largest company.
Campaign contributions may bend an ear, but they don't guarantee votes, politicians say.
Don Bain, chair of the Republican State Central Committee, said contributions are intended to run a campaign and elect Republicans, not to influence legislation. ``We regularly seek contributions from all kinds of organizations. It's all perfectly legitimate and legal,'' he said.
Mike Beatty, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, pointed out that US West's contribution to its campaign coffers ``was not very much money. I don't think anyone would suspect it implied anything regarding Democrats,'' he said.
Tim Sandos, TCI's regional director of government affairs, said $24,000 of the cable contributions were for two ballot initiatives, not for individual campaigns. ``We have always contributed to people who support free enterprise,'' he said. The amounts spent in 1994 weren't any higher or lower than in previous years, he said. END!J&3?DP-CAMPAIGNS
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