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Dear Jeb: See past the lies, veto phone bill

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 3, 2002


Dear Governor Bush:

I keep hearing that you and the Legislature are waiting to let the fuss die down before you jack up local telephone rates of many Floridians by $3 to $5 a month.

Everybody says that you are already for this deal and that your decision to sign this law is not a matter of if, but only when.

I hope not. I hope you have noticed that you've gotten a lot of e-mail on this subject. Heck, I bet if more people knew that your address was jeb@myflorida.com, they too might ask you not to raise their phone rates.

I hope you have read the letter you got Monday from Attorney General Bob Butterworth. He says this law "is nothing but bad news for millions of Florida consumers."

If the word of a Democrat is not good enough, listen to a conservative member of your own Republican Party, state Rep. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. He says this bill "blatantly favors the needs of big business over the needs of the average Floridian."

The thing is, governor, I know you a little. If you think this law is the right thing, then you will sign it, even in an election year.

So my goal is to provide something that you are not going to get in Tallahassee -- an argument for vetoing the bill on its merits.

This bill is based on three great untrue statements, which cannot be made true by being repeated often enough. The telephone companies cannot buy truth, no matter if they run cheerful ads featuring women in tank tops in the Tallahassee Democrat:

(1) The untruth that local service in Florida is too cheap, and is being "subsidized."

(2) The untruth that the Public Service Commission has final say over rates going up.

(3) The untruth that local service will become more "competitive" with this law.

First, about this "subsidy."

To hear the poor, suffering telephone companies tell it, we local customers are a terrible burden. It costs them more to hang wires and flip switches than they get back.

And, you know what? If you miraculously don't count all the other revenues that the companies derive from their customers, I suppose this might be true. In accounting terms, let us consider customers as a cost center, but not give them full credit as a revenue center.

To buy the argument, you have to assume that the companies would otherwise be raking in all the profits they do now without having any local customers to sell their services to.

Me, I have not yet heard of a business that made a profit without customers, but perhaps I am not fully schooled in the new economy. Here is the deal I would offer the telephone company: Let us wave a magic wand to take away all of your burdensome "subsidized" local customers tomorrow, so you at long, sweet last will be free to make some real money.

The second great untruth about this law is that the state Public Service Commission has final say on raising rates.

I know that is a key point for you. You, personally, wanted that kind of assurance in this law. That is why you might sign it.

But it is a sham. The language of the bill is clear. The PSC has little if any discretion. All the phone company has to do is show up, spell its name right and claim that raising rates will "benefit consumers."

NO RATE INCREASE WILL BE DENIED UNDER THIS BILL. You know it. If you sign this law, you personally will be reaching into the pockets of millions of people. You.

The third untruth is that this bill will make local phone service more "competitive." We have been hearing that promise for a decade. It is how the telephone industry has gotten everything it has wanted from the Legislature. It is why telephone profits haven't even been regulated in Florida since the mid 1990s.

It is a colossal lie.

There are several other arguments against this bill. In sum, you can veto it and not feel bad about it. You can veto it not because of politics, not because of an election year, but because that is the right thing to do.

You will make the phone companies mad for a while, but trust me -- they're not gonna cut off your phone, and they're sure as heck not gonna beat you in November. You're the only governor they've got.

But for 15-million people out here, you're the only governor we've got, too.

-- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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