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    Firms pushing phone rate hikes enriched parties' coffers

    Compiled from Times wires
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 17, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- Telecommunications firms and their lobbyists contributed more than $5-million to Florida campaigns and political parties before seeking what could be the largest increase in home telephone service rates in state history.

    Most of the money went to Republicans, helping Gov. Jeb Bush win re-election and the GOP strengthen its hold on the Legislature, according to an analysis by the Miami Herald.

    Under industry-backed legislation supported by Bush and the Legislature, monthly rates could jump statewide from $3 to $7.25 during the next four years. Rates could continue increasing as much as 20 percent per year.

    The legislation is opposed by consumer groups such as the AARP, which says the companies want to increase profits at the expense of low-income Floridians.

    The Senate version of the legislation is now in the hands of an influential Tampa Bay area senator who stopped short of endorsing the proposal Wednesday.

    Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, took control of the bill and steered it to the Rules and Calendar Committee he heads after it passed the Communications and Public Utilities Committee 8-1 last week. Lee was a leading opponent of last year's version, which passed but was vetoed by Bush.

    "The bill is a lot better this year, and it's a lot more fair this year," Lee said. "But with the context of everything else going on around here, it's really hard to take the time to get into a bill that has that many intricate mechanical details."

    Lee's maneuver might be part of a Senate strategy to use the telephone legislation as a bargaining chip in the session's final two weeks. Bush and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, are supporters of the measure, and more than 150 lobbyists are pushing for its passage.

    Bush says this version is better because it expands both the Public Service Commission's regulatory role and the "Lifeline" program for poor consumers. He said it would create a "robust market" and lead to "an expansion of services at competitive prices."

    The House version passed the Business Regulation Committee on a 30-1 vote. The lone no vote came from the panel's chairman, Rep. Manny Prieguez, R-Miami.

    "There are some people who voted for this bill because of the incredible amount of pressure they're getting from the phone companies, and now they're justifying a vote that they know will raise rates," Prieguez said.

    "Some people overlook the right and wrong because of the pressure they get from lobbyists and the people from the industry." The Herald analysis found that the major local phone companies, long-distance providers and cable companies contributed more than $3.2-million to state elections.

    The Republican Party of Florida took in $1.4-million from the phone companies and cable telecommunications association. The Florida Democratic Party received $505,576 from these firms.

    Lobbyists registered to work for these companies pumped another $2.2-million into state races and party coffers for the 2002 elections.

    Besides the fundraising, the industry has hired at least 150 lobbyists -- nearly one for every lawmaker in the 160-member Legislature.

    They include former House Speaker John Thrasher, a close friend of the governor; Jerry Maygarden, a former Pensacola lawmaker who led the House utilities committee last year; Michael Corcoran, a former aide to House Speaker Byrd; Randy Enwright, a key Florida strategist for President Bush; and Courtney Bense, the daughter of the Republicans' House speaker-designate, Allan Bense of Panama City.

    Two members of the House committee that drafted the legislation, Miami Reps. Julio Robaina, a Republican, and Wilbert "Tee" Holloway, a Democrat, are employees of BellSouth, the state's largest local phone service company.

    Supporters of the proposal acknowledge that it could result in a short-term rate increase for local phone service. But they say consumers would eventually benefit from greater options and lower prices resulting from more competition.

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