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    Plan to raise phone bills hits Senate resistance

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 21, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- A controversial proposal to raise phone bills as much as $5 monthly over the next five years in the Tampa Bay area received strong opposition in the Senate, making its fate once again uncertain.

    The bill is supposed to leave the actual rate changes up to the Public Service Commission, but two area legislators insist the group will not be able to disagree with proposed increases.

    "It's virtually leading them," said Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. "Are they going to disagree with the Legislature?"

    The proposal, opposed by consumer groups and the attorney general, was passed by the House. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill today.

    Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, the bill's sponsor, said he changed the bill to give the commission ultimate control, making it more amenable to the governor. But Brown-Waite and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the commission would be forced to accept the legislative findings on the need to overhaul phone rates.

    "They would be a foundation upon which the commission would begin its deliberations," Lee said. The PSC "should make its own determinations."

    Despite the late hour, dozens of telecommunications lobbyists were clustered around TV monitors in the Capitol rotunda at 9 p.m. Wednesday. They insist that the average consumer will save money in the long run, or at least break even.

    The higher cost of basic phone service is supposed to be offset by cheaper long-distance calls within Florida.

    But opponents say customers who rarely call long-distance will pay more. They also worry that phone companies won't keep their promise to lower rates for a significant period of time.

    Supporters say the changes will promote competition among local phone companies because the rate increases would mean they could afford to offer the local service.

    -- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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