Bush kills phone rate increase
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- In a move that stunned legislators, Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday vetoed a contentious phone rate increase that produced more consumer opposition than any other issue this year.
Legislators, particularly fellow Republicans, and phone companies that heavily lobbied the usually pro-business governor, speculated Bush was playing politics in an election year.
"I'm disappointed," said Sen. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, House majority leader and a sponsor of the bill. "It's lame at best."
The bill (HB 1683) likely would have increased monthly local rates by as much as $5 over five years in the Tampa Bay area, and as much as $7 in other parts of the state. It promised consumers cheaper long distance calls within Florida to offset the higher local rates.
"It falls short in the method and magnitude that is required to return tangible benefits to the average consumer in Florida," Bush said in his three-page veto message.
Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, a supporter of the bill, said he thinks the governor "read the tea leaves a bit."
"I think he's looked at his poll numbers and realized he could use this to say he's consumer friendly," he said.
The governor's decision will undoubtedly put a strain on his already rocky relationship with the Republican-dominated Legislature, which overwhelmingly approved the bill last month.
"This could add fuel to the fire," said Sen. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat who leads the black caucus, which supported the bill. "But it's already at rock bottom. How much lower can you go?"
Bush said his biggest concern was that the proposal did not go far enough in allowing the Public Service Commission, an independent regulatory agency, to have the final decision over whether the rates would be raised.
"It's an election year and to pass on the largest increase is not good politics," said Bill Newton, interim executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network.
Legislators said they were told Bush would sign the bill after an amendment was added allowing the PSC to approve the rate changes. But Bush said Tuesday it was unclear how much authority the bill gave the PSC to reject proposed rate increases.
Consumer advocates, including Attorney General Bob Butterworth, encouraged customers to send e-mails and letters to the governor asking for a veto. Thousands poured in.
"It's a really good example of what people can do when they get involved," said Lyn Bodiford of AARP, which made the phone bill one of its top issues this legislative session. "It's a great day for Florida consumers."
Consumer groups worried that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance would end up paying more. And they argued that long distance companies would not keep their promises to lower rates.
Butterworth called the proposal the largest phone bill increase in two decades, and estimated that it would cause 7 percent to 25 percent of Floridians to cancel service.
"I'm very pleased the governor vetoed this terrible piece of legislation," he said.
But supporters contend the increase would be offset by cheaper long distance charges within Florida, and that the changes would promote competition among local phone companies, resulting in lower rates.
"At some point, changes called for in the bill must be made to help open doors for Florida consumers to see the benefits of local phone competition and to help keep Florida economically competitive with other states," said Gus Alfonso, AT&T spokesman.
The governor praised lawmakers for trying to increase competition, but said he worried the bill would not guarantee that.
"In the end, after weeks of reviewing the bill, countless meetings, research and reflection, I believe that more can be done so that we can comfortably say we are doing the right thing," Bush wrote.
The Legislature, which passed the bill 103-12 in the House and 26-9 in the Senate, could try to override Bush's veto with a two-thirds vote during a special session next week on the budget.
But the bill's sponsors say that's unlikely, and the bill probably won't even resurface next year.
"I can't imagine anyone wanting to get out front on this issue again," said Maygarden, a sponsor of the bill.
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 required 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 have risen 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.
Verizon, which has 2-million customers in the Tampa Bay area, estimates it would have raised the monthly fee by $1 every year for five years.
"I never doubted he would do the right thing," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of the few legislators opposed to the bill. "He's a governor who looks out for the average citizen."
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