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    Pleas pour in on phone rate bill

    Butterworth lambastes the measure as phone companies buy ads and urge that Gov. Bush approve local rate hikes.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 2, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Customers and consumer advocates, including Attorney General Bob Butterworth, are bombarding Gov. Jeb Bush with pleas to veto controversial legislation that would increase monthly phone bills.

    In a three-page letter to Bush on Monday, Butterworth said the bill would trigger "the largest telephone rate hike in Florida's history."

    Phone companies, meanwhile, are buying newspaper ads and lobbying the governor's aides to try to convince Bush he should sign the bill into law. The Legislature overwhelmingly approved the bill last month.

    "We still think it's a good bill," AT&T Florida spokesman Gus Alfonso said Monday. "We're just holding our breath."

    Supporters of the proposal that would raise monthly bills in the Tampa Bay area as much as $5 over the next five years contend the increase would be offset by cheaper long distance charges within Florida.

    But consumer advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance would end up paying more. They argue that long distance companies will not keep their promises to lower rates for a significant period of time.

    "While this legislation may be a good deal for the telephone companies, it is nothing but bad news for millions of Florida consumers who will end up footing the bill for the largest telephone rate hike in Florida's history," Butterworth wrote to Bush on Monday.

    Consumers, reacting to weeks of negative publicity and editorials in newspapers throughout the state, have sent 1,293 e-mails and 120 letters and made hundreds of calls to Bush. The governor's office has not been able to sort through all of the messages yet, but estimates most are against the bill.

    "This bill, while packaged nicely, is a Trojan horse that will, one day, open up and hit each and every resident in the pocketbook," Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, wrote to Bush last week.

    The strong opposition didn't stop the Legislature from passing the bill 103-12 in the House and 26-9 in the Senate. The bill has yet to be sent to Bush, who has 15 days after that to sign or veto the bill.

    Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said Bush was initially concerned about the bill. He said the governor later agreed to sign it as long as the Public Service Commission gets the final say on whether rates would be increased. Critics of the bill contend the PSC would have little choice but to approve the rate increases based on the wording of the legislation.

    The industry says the changes will promote competition among local phone companies so that consumers eventually could have several options, as they have with long distance companies. That could bring lower rates.

    Companies, including Verizon and AT&T, have spoken to the governor's aides to try to convince them that the changes will promote competition among local phone companies. Company officials say consumers eventually could have several options for local service, as they have with long distance service, and that could bring lower rates.

    "We've had some conversations," Verizon spokesman Bob Elek said. "It's part of the process as it moves along."

    The Florida Telecommunications Industry Association took out a full-page newspaper ad in the Tallahassee Democrat, touting the proposal as "a new day in Florida" and "a great step toward Florida's future."

    "Most of what has been printed on the bill is negative," said Susan Langston, the group's executive director. "It's important to get the positive side out."

    Mike Twomey, executive director of the consumer group Florida Utility Watch, called the ad "misleading" and "dishonest."

    "It's a big deceptive lie," he said. "It doesn't mention anyplace that rates are going up."

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