COURSEY: The phone company that cares

Take a trip with me in the way-back machine to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Lily Tomlin on "Laugh-In" and "Saturday Night Live" made famous her character "Ernestine," the rude, pinch-faced telephone operator.

"We don't care," she informed unhappy customers. "We don't have to — we're The Phone Company."

It was black humor in the days when AT&T had a veritable stranglehold on the telephone business in the United States. Without any competition to speak of, the phone company really didn't have to care.

Now fast-forward four decades, passing along the way the federal anti-trust case that broke up AT&T and set off widespread competition in the telephone business, along with technological advances that have transformed the industry that not so long ago was limited to rotary-dial phones and hard-wire connections.

How much does AT&T care now? Very, very much.

That may not seem the case if you're a subscriber dealing with their customer services available online or by phone. While mobile phones have become more and more user-friendly and phone companies have branched out into data and cable service, the nation's largest provider of those services seems to have gone in the opposite direction. AT&T, from my personal perspective, is the most maddening and frustrating company I deal with. They don't seem to care about me other than to collect my monthly bills.

But AT&T most certainly cares about the people who regulate its business. Especially in California.

In Sunday's Page 1 story, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, we learned that no corporation has spent as much money trying to influence lawmakers in Sacramento as AT&T. Since 1999, the company and its affiliates have spent $47 million on lobbying — twice the amount of the second-biggest corporate spender. And that's on top of about $1 million a year in campaign contributions handed out by AT&T.

Where does that money come from? Well, from me, for one. And you, too, if you're an AT&T customer.

And what are we getting for it? Nothing much, if you ask lawmakers or AT&T execs. Assembly Speaker John Perez, who has been treated to high-ticket golf outings, NBA Finals games and other perks by AT&T, said none of those gifts would influence policy decisions in the Capitol. And Ken McNeely, president of AT&T California, said the big spending is just his company's way to "participate actively in the public policy arena."

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