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    Bush supports phone rate bill in part, he says

    Though it may raise local rates, he thinks it will foster competition. But the PSC's level of authority concerns him.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday he supports parts of a bill that could raise monthly local telephone rates by as much as $5 over five years in the Tampa Bay area, but some parts of it give him pause.

    The governor said he is concerned about a provision that is supposed to give the Public Service Commission authority over local phone rates. "It doesn't give the PSC the full authority it should have to be able to make this decision in a thoughtful way," he said.

    But, the governor added, he favors the portions of the bill that would promote competition among local phone companies and give consumers several options in service and eventually lower rates.

    It was the first time Bush has spoken publicly about the contentious bill (CS HB 1683), which legislators expect him to sign by Wednesday's deadline.

    The bill sponsors added the PSC provision specifically because Bush wanted it and told them he would be "inclined" to sign the bill only if it were added.

    "What I tried to do was craft a bill that fit his principles," said Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, House majority leader and a sponsor. "It does everything that this man believes in."

    The industry strongly supports the bill, claiming changes will promote competition among local phone companies so consumers eventually will have more options and lower rates.

    "If he vetoes the bill, then it's perhaps for more political reasons than practical ones," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, a sponsor.

    Bush said on Monday he still had not made up his mind and would continue to meet with people about the bill today. His schedule today shows he is meeting a representative of Florida Legal Services, which opposes the bill.

    The governor's office has been bombarded with thousands of letters, e-mails and phone calls on the bill. Last week, he got letters supporting the bill from the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and the National Hispanic Council on Aging, among others.

    Supporters say higher rates would be offset by cheaper long distance charges within Florida. Consumer advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance would end up paying more.

    "The governor has the right to veto," said Sen. Jim King, who will become the next Senate president if the Republicans retain control in November. "That's part and parcel of check and balance. He just needs to understand we didn't come by the decision we've made lightly. He asked us to make a decision and we did it."

    Legislators say the bill probably will not return next year if it fails this year. "No one wants to take that beating more than once," Maygarden said.

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

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