St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida
Place an Ad Calendars Classified Forums Sports Weather
  • Legislators struggle to cut deal
  • Phone rates bill in Bush's hands
  • Legislature in brief
  • Senate confirms Bush's PSC choice

  • From the state wire

  • Hurricane Jeanne appears on track to hit Florida's east coast
  • Rumor mill working overtime after Florida hurricanes
  • Developments associated with Hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne
  • Four killed in Panhandle plane crash were on Ivan charity mission
  • Hurricane Frances caused estimated $4.4 billion in insured damage
  • Disabled want more handicapped-accessible voting machines
  • USF forces administrators to resign over test score changes
  • Man's death at Universal Studios ruled accidental
  • State child welfare workers in Miami fail to do background checks
  • Hurricane Jeanne heads toward southeast U.S. coast
  • Hurricane Jeanne spurs more anxiety for storm-weary Floridians
  • Mistrial declared in case where teen was target of racial "joke"
  • Panhandle utility wants sewer plant moved to higher ground
  • State employee arrested on theft, bribery charges
  • Homestead house fire kills four children, one adult
  • Pierson leader tries to cut off relief to local fern cutters
  • Florida's high court rules Terri's law unconstitutional
  • Jacksonville students punished for putting stripper pole in dorm
  • FEMA handling nearly 600,000 applications for help
  • Man who killed wife, niece, self also killed mother in 1971
  • Producer sues city over lead ball fired by Miami police
  • Tourism suffers across Florida after pummeling by hurricanes
  • Key dates in the life of Terri Schiavo
  • An excerpt from the unanimous ruling in the Schiavo case
  • Four confirmed dead after small plane crash in Panhandle
  • Correction: Disney-Cruise Line story

    printer version

    Phone rates bill in Bush's hands

    The Senate approves a bill that proponents say will lower long distance rates and spur competition, but raise basic monthly bills.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 22, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Monthly phone bills in the Tampa Bay area are expected to rise as much as $5 over the next five years under a plan overwhelmingly approved by the state Legislature and awaiting the governor's signature.

    The higher cost of basic phone service is supposed to be offset by cheaper long distance calls within Florida. Now, phoning Miami can cost more than calling New York.

    The controversial proposal, the largest increase in phone rates in at least 20 years, is strongly opposed by consumer advocates, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and most of the Tampa Bay area's state senators.

    But the opposition didn't stop the Senate from passing the bill 26-9 on Thursday and the House 103-12 last week.

    Supporters say the changes will promote competition among local phone companies so that within several years consumers could have several options, as they have with long distance companies. That could bring lower rates.

    "It is my strong belief that we will provide competition in Florida, which will ultimately result in benefits to consumers of the state of Florida," said Sen. Skip Campbell, a sponsor of the bill.

    But consumer advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance could pay as much as $8 more a month. They also worry that long distance companies will not keep their promise to lower rates for a significant period of time.

    Besides, opponents say, why would telephone companies support something that increases their competition?

    Some have started to lobby Gov. Jeb Bush to veto the bill.

    "The public's getting ripped off," said Mike Twomey, executive director of the consumer group Florida Utility Watch. "The rate increases are going to be there."

    The bill gives the Public Service Commission the final say, a provision Bush wanted, providing political cover in an election year.

    "Despite the amendments that have been made, this legislation will result in higher phone bills for most Floridians for various reasons," Butterworth wrote in a letter to senators. He estimates 7 to 25 percent of Floridians might be forced to cancel service.

    Consumer advocates have called the PSC provision a sham because the Legislature left little room for discretion. Companies can petition the PSC for higher rates after Dec. 1.

    A handful of senators, led by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, made the same argument to colleagues. Brown-Waite unsuccessfully fought to remove the "legislative findings" from the bill that she said would force the PSC to adopt the new rates.

    Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, agreed with Brown-Waite but because Senate President John McKay asked him to oversee the debate he was unable to speak against it. He voted no.

    "It's really bad for consumers," said Lyn Bodiford of AARP.

    Bush was concerned about the bill earlier in the legislative session, but Campbell said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan told him Wednesday that Bush would sign the bill with the PSC provision.

    "Until it is on the desk and we have an opportunity to review it we can't say what we will do," Brogan said on Thursday. "A comma or a semicolon can change the entire intent of legislation."

    Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst said the governor is monitoring the bill but would not comment. "Gov. Bush has not yet taken a position," she said. "It's a very complicated bill, and he will have to review the language."

    Without the legislation, the PSC can not take up issues of local rates or access fees. If the bill becomes law, the PSC would decide how much the rates would change, if at all.

    Phone companies, which aren't supposed to profit from the proposal, insist the average consumer will break even. Their lobbyists pressed legislators to pass the bill and watched the vote at the Capitol on Thursday.

    The Legislature opened up the local market to competition in 1995 but capped rates from 1995 to 2000 for most companies and 2001 for the state's largest company, BellSouth.

    The proposal requires the three largest local phone companies -- Verizon, BellSouth and Sprint -- to reduce the fees they charge long distance companies for access to their networks.

    Local fees would rise for residential customers and small businesses -- those with just one phone line -- but not big businesses, which telephone companies say pay more than their fair share.

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

    Verizon, which has 2-million customers in the Tampa Bay area, estimates it would increase the monthly fee by $1 every year for five years.

    The legislation allows more low income Floridians to be eligible for discounts for phone service, up to $12 on monthly bills.

    "If we're going to potentially raise rates . . . then we must make sure that those who can least afford their phone service will not be in jeopardy," Sen. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Weston.

    -- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

    How they voted

    NO: Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville; Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg; Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Sen. Jim Sebesata, R-St. Petersburg; Sen. Richard Mitchell, R-Jasper; Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.

    YES: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

    DID NOT VOTE: Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg.

    The Senate approves a bill that proponents say will lower long distance rates and spur competition, but raise basic monthly bills.

    Back to State news
    Back to Top

    © 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
    490 First Avenue South • St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • 727-893-8111
    Special Links
    Lucy Morgan

    From the Times state desk