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Veto of phone bill not an easy move

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2002


Some people will accuse Gov. Jeb Bush of taking the popular, election-year route on Tuesday when he vetoed an act of the Legislature that would have raised telephone rates for millions of Floridians.

Exactly the opposite is true. This was a gutsy and principled veto in the face of overwhelming pressure, coming at the governor from all parts of the power structure in Tallahassee, to play along with the good old boys.

Bush's fellow Republicans wanted him to raise telephone rates, to help their powerful buddies in the phone industry.

Democrats wanted Bush to raise telephone rates, too. Lawmakers of both parties struck a wicked understanding with each other, to pass the bill on a bipartisan vote, and then not to use it as an election issue.

(In fact, although unlikely at this point, it would not be shocking if someone still tried to override the veto. So read the newspaper to keep track, just in case you should call your legislators yet one more time.)

The telephone companies themselves, with all their influence, and all their money, and the 100-plus lobbyists they hired to push their interest -- they sure as heck wanted the governor to sign the bill.

None of them went to all this trouble just to give the governor a chance to look pretty by vetoing it. Sure, Bush looks good by opposing higher phone rates. But he is going to pay a political price in Tallahassee -- maybe a worse price than if he had signed it.

Let's say he had signed it. What would have happened to him politically? Do you think Janet Reno would have magically erased all her negatives and ridden the issue to victory over Bush? Or Bill McBride, who showed not a whit of interest? Do you think they even would have tried, given the Democratic Party's own complicity in passing the bill?

No. There was not much downside to Bush signing the bill into law, except for a few grumpy e-mails, and some harmless sniping from critics (!) that would have been forgotten and irrelevant by November.

Instead, the Legislature is going to be nail-spitting furious at him. Its members will say, we thought we had a deal. We thought if we went out on a limb and raised telephone rates that he would make it a law, and we would put it all behind us. Instead, the Legislature will feel hung out to dry.

Yet the governor's veto letter shows that he grasped, with precision, the major reasons that the bill is a bad bill:

Lack of true discretion by the state Public Service Commission. At worst, the bill's "circular logic" forces the PSC to raise rates automatically, no matter what, the governor said.

Lack of evidence that higher rates would create true competition in local phone service. The PSC should conduct a total review of all factors affecting competition in Florida, the governor said.

Socking consumers with these higher rates would lock in a source of revenue for the local telephone companies, revenue which otherwise would be declining in a competitive, truly free market.

What should happen now?

The Legislature should understand it has been a patsy for the telephone companies and get right with the people before it is too late. Without the protection of the governor's signature, any House or Senate member who tries to ram through this ripoff again should be flayed alive in the November campaign.

Then, here is what Florida should do.

Florida should get everybody together for a true discussion of the future of telephone competition in this state. It should hear from the telephone companies. It should hear from consumer groups, who were utterly excluded from this process. It should hear from experts. It should strike a balance and act.

But Florida should not tolerate any more secret meetings between telephone lobbyists and the Legislature, as happened this spring. No more. The Legislature should not try again to take, by force, the money of millions of people, should not try again to rob them under color of state law, while flying the state flag of Florida and while using the power of the government in a direct and deliberate decision against the people's interests.

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

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