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Revamped phone bill makes a comeback

Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a telecommunications bill last year. Lobbyists say a new proposal is different.

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 2, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- A controversial telecommunications measure similar to a bill the governor vetoed last year resurfaced in the House on Tuesday, the halfway point of the Legislature's 60-day session.

Telecommunications lobbyists delivered a proposal for new legislation, but it has yet to be introduced, said state Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.

"I'm not satisfied yet because we haven't heard from all interested parties," said Mayfield, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

Mayfield called on witnesses from the telecommunications industry to explain the proposal, but ran out of time and adjourned the meeting before hearing from opponents.

Telecommunications experts say the idea is to generate competition and help expand new technology. Lobbyists contend the proposal has dramatically changed since Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it last year and no longer contains potential rate increases or other issues that led the governor to reject it.

Like last year, it is one of the most heavily lobbied issues facing lawmakers.

Future rate increases would be left to the Public Service Commission, while access to a low-cost telephone service would be made more available to the poor and elderly.

But consumer advocate Mike Twomey said the bill "still stinks and would raise telephone rates by 20 percent in exchange for poorer service."

Cory Tilley, former communications director for the governor and now a spokesman for telecommunications companies, disputed Twomey's claim.

"There was a lot of crying last year about an automatic rate increase," Tilley said. "It's clear in this proposal that any rate increase would have to be approved by the PSC."

Asked about the bill as he visited legislative offices Tuesday afternoon, Bush said he is taking a hard look at the new proposal but has not agreed to specific language.

"We've been working with all of the interested parties," Bush said. "Our hope is that we can be supportive, but I don't think we've seen the final draft of an actual bill."

Bush said he generally supports the idea of increasing competition, but only if vulnerable people are protected and the PSC is not told what to do.

"But I'm a little cautious about saying we are totally supportive until we see it," Bush said. "I think the members are a little gun shy, given what happened last year. I don't want to put anybody in a bad position."

-- Staff writer Mike Sandler and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

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