High-tech lobby gains ground

The Technology Network, a bipartisan group of high-tech CEOs and their political consultants, is beginning to prove itself as a force to be reckoned with.

4 min read
As a political coalition, the Technology Network is teetering between being a newborn and a toddler.

But the bipartisan group of high-tech CEOs and their political consultants (a.k.a. lobbyists) is beginning to prove itself as a force to be reckoned with.

When TechNet launched last summer, leader John Doerr and his crack policy entourage made the rounds touting the group's narrow, two-point agenda: to reduce "frivolous" shareholder lawsuits through national securities reform legislation and to leverage free-market ideas to improve public education.

The group's tactics were to be based on traditional fundraising dinners and tons of "face time" with politicians. This week it seems to have paid off. TechNet has made notable progress on both the education and securities reform fronts.

Today the California legislature sent a bill to Gov. Pete Wilson that expands the state's charter school program--a move that was engineered behind the scenes by TechNet. And yesterday, TechNet-backed legislation to limit shareholder lawsuits against companies with volatile stock prices was cleared by the Senate Judiciary Committee after President Clinton had endorsed the bill earlier this week.

These successes confirm that dreams such as Doerr's so-called new economy can start in Silicon Valley garages, but that realizing them depends in great part on the computer industry's stake in the public policy arena.

Upon kicking off, it was no surprise that TechNet's securities reform effort was more detailed and faster-moving than its comparably vague education platform. After all, Doerr had spearheaded the 1996 campaign that defeated Proposition 211 in California. The initiative would have cleared the way for shareholders to sue companies--such as the slew of high-tech start-ups in the state--over investments gone awry.

However, the charter school legislation pushed through today bolsters TechNet's credibility. A charter school is a grassroots, nontraditional education facility that is funded by tax dollars and is required to meet state education standards.

"It shows how serious we are about hard internal fighting on an education issue," said Wade Randlett, the group's Democratic political director.

"We won't just issue one report or make some conclusion about the state of education and then move on," he added. "This says we're going to identify problems and go to the legislature or the initiative process to get these ends accomplished."

The legislation expands the current cap of 100 public charter schools to 250 and adds 100 more each year. Teachers, students, or parents petition school districts or the state Board of Education to start their own charters which, if the legislation is passed, will still be overseen by districts but will only be able to employ credentialed teachers--thus changing the current law.

By July 2003, the legislature will review the success of all charter schools--but their status can be repealed at any time for fiscal mismanagement or poor student performance.

Proponents say charters encourage competition, thus shaking out schools that don't succeed. Opponents argue that tax dollars shouldn't be used for such "experiments" and that the state's existing charters haven't been properly assessed.

Although the political process is manipulated by numerous factors and no one faction ever holds all the marionette strings, insiders say TechNet did play a key role in the negotiations over the charter school legislation.

"They were very influential in putting the deal together," said Paul Smith, spokesman for Assemblyman Ted Lempert (D-San Carlos), chair of the Education Committee who worked with TechNet and the California Teachers Association (CTA) on the legislation.

TechNet is gaining power, Smith added, because what the group has to offer is "sexy" and alluring to politicians. "These people tend to be the new entrepreneurs, and politicians tend to want to hang out with people that are on the cutting edge," he said.

Gov. Wilson is sure to sign the bill, which was slated to be a November ballot initiative up until five weeks ago when TechNet endorsed the idea. The bill was authored by Don Shalvey, superintendent of the San Carlos School District, and Reed Hastings, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

The CTA was leery of the proposal because at first it didn't require that teachers be credentialed and still doesn't guarantee collective bargaining for charter teachers. But after meeting with Hastings and Shalvey, who were being advised by TechNet, the CTA agreed to compromises.

"We are happy that it passed. We think it's going to be a better law than we have now," CTA spokeswoman Tommye Hutto said today.

TechNet also is influencing national politics. From California to Washington, political pundits acknowledge TechNet's presence. The group's strength, observers say, is putting pols such as Vice President Al Gore together with high-tech executives from companies including Netscape Communications, Cisco Systems, and Sun Microsystems. (CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of NEWS.COM, also is a member.)

The Senate committee's approval of the Securities Litigation Uniform Standards Act is another feather in TechNet's cap. House lawmakers were pushing the bill before TechNet officially formed, but the group's members such as Doerr were still involved.

The reform bill is expected to be one of the only pieces of high tech-related legislation that clears Congress this year. Both houses of Congress likely will vote on the bill by August.

"I think their biggest influence has been directly on the president," said a legislative assistant for a Silicon Valley congresswoman.

"Since Clinton is behind securities reform legislation, that is the big [500]-pound gorilla," said the staffer. "John Doerr and John Chambers [chief executive of Cisco Systems] have relationships with politicians that are the key to all of this. TechNet rides on their coattails, as the organization figures out what its real role can be and what it can do."