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Critics hang high-rate rap on new phone bill

Those opposing it say it will raise calling rates, even as a Senate committee passed it.

Published April 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Back for a second run in the Florida Legislature, a controversial proposal to deregulate the state's telephone industry was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday despite protests from consumer advocates that it will lead to higher rates.

The Senate Committee on Communications and Public Utilities approved the measure (SB 654) 8-1. This year's bill gives the Florida Public Service Commission limited oversight over rates. Last year's did not.

That satisfied Gov. Jeb Bush, who vetoed last year's bill, but not consumer advocates, who say it still will lead to higher rates.

Consumer activist Mike Twomey told the committee that the Senate bill, drafted by committee Chairman Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, is a major rate increase in basic service disguised in the the form of "rebalancing" rates.

"Rebalancing means rate increases, Mr. Chairman, and no one should tell you differently," Twomey told the committee. Senators supporting the bill said encouraging competition will lead to lower rates.

The bill now goes to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development. The House Committee on Business Regulation takes up a similar measure today.

Bush embraced the new effort because it includes PSC oversight and expands opportunities for the poor to get discounted phone rates.

"Now if there are changes, all bets are off," Bush said. "But that's been my commitment. I made that commitment because since I vetoed it, I was told the bill wouldn't move without my public acknowledgement of my support."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is expected to vote against the bill. Last year Fasano, as House majority leader, helped defeat the bill by directing consumers to lobby Bush.

"There's no ifs, ands or buts, rates are going to go up if this bill gets passed," Fasano said, dismissing the PSC's role. He pointed out that PSC Chairwoman Lila Jaber supported the bill last year when it did not grant oversight to her board. To Fasano, that indicates where she stands on rate increases.

"Just so the governor can approve it, we'll throw responsibility to someone else," Fasano said. "The sad thing is this bill is probably going to the floor, and unless we can convince some other people, it's probably going to pass."

[Last modified April 9, 2003, 02:03:05]

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