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    Senate backs bill that could boost local phone rates

    Phone companies wrote the measure. The average monthly bill could rise by up to $7.25 in the next four years.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 30, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - While the state budget was put on hold, the Florida Senate on Tuesday moved along a bill that could produce the largest phone rate increase in state history.

    With little debate, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure (SB 654) that phone companies have worked tirelessly to pass.

    Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a similar bill last year, but supports this year's version because it expands discounts for the poor and gives the Public Service Commission limited oversight to approve rate increases.

    "It's acceptable because there's more focus on embracing, through less regulation, the new technologies that I think will enhance the economy," Bush said.

    Phone customers also will pay more for local service. The bill would increase the average monthly bill for basic phone service by as much as $7.25 in the next four years, according to government studies. After that, basic service could increase by as much as 20 percent a year.

    Supporters say the measure is designed to stimulate competition among phone companies and eventually lead to lower long-distance bills within Florida.

    Phone companies wrote the bill, which includes a promise to advertise a program that offers discounts to low-income customers.

    Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, is unsatisfied. He wants the phone companies to pay $625,000 for the advertising campaign and he wants it in writing.

    "They agreed to pay some money to help poor folks," Siplin said. "I just want to make sure it's in the bill."

    More than 1-million people qualify for the discounts, Siplin said, but only about 2,000 are enrolled. He wants the phone companies to do a better job informing customers about it.

    That was the only aspect of the bill discussed Tuesday, and his colleagues persuaded him to withdraw his amendment, huddle with the phone companies and reintroduce something they would support today when the bill is taken up for debate.

    Lobbyists for phone companies fear any amendments would force Bush to veto the bill. They said he would support it only in its current form.

    "It will do more harm," said Cory Tilley, a spokesperson for the phone companies. "The governor has said not to amend it, and I think any kind of amendment can open up a can of worms."

    Opponents, who represent poor and elderly people, said forcing phone companies to spend money on an advertising campaign wouldn't solve the problem. A better solution, they said, is to automatically enroll those who qualify.

    The AARP is has been writing Bush asking him to veto the bill. But their lobbyists says that now seems unlikely.

    "It looks to me this bill is going to pass no matter how bad it is for consumers ...," said Lyn Bodiford, a lobbyist for the AARP.

    - Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.


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