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Lawmakers: It's payback time for hike in phone rates

Published October 10, 2004

One more time before the Nov. 2 election, let's remember the raw deal that our state Legislature gave to the people of Florida when it voted to jack up local telephone rates.

We voters are supposed to have forgotten by now. It happened back in 2003. That was not an election year. The Legislature figured we do not have much of a memory.

So let's remember. Name by name. In most cases it won't do any good, because the Legislature's districts are rigged and the incumbents are a shoo-in. But here and there, it matters.

Is that okay, state Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, who voted for higher phone rates? You were in the House leadership. You were Speaker Johnny Byrd's man.

But this is not about party label. Democrats voted yes, too. Isn't that right, Reps. Frank Peterman of St. Petersburg and Arthenia Joyner and Bob Henriquez of Tampa? You made a deal with the devil. The phone companies made sure to buy off Democratic opposition by claiming to expand help to poor people. But the coming rate increases will outstrip that aid.

This was not a good law. It was a bad law. It was a cheat. It was a lie based on lies. It was using the power of government to steal money from the pockets of the people.

The Legislature did not even write this law. The telephone lobbyists wrote it. The Legislature literally filed an empty piece of paper as the original "bill." They kept secret the actual wording of the bill until well into the Legislature's session.

There was no debate. Consumers and groups representing the public were not allowed to take part in the bill's drafting. The House and the Senate rammed it through. Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law.

They claimed they weren't really raising phone rates - that the decision would be up to the Public Service Commission. Isn't that right, state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island? Don't you like to say that you voted for this law so the PSC, and not the Legislature, would decide? How about you, Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg?

But that claim was a sham. It was a setup job. Everybody in the world knew the PSC would have no choice under the law. The PSC held 14 fake "public hearings" around the state. Then it voted unanimously. Fortunately, Attorney General Charlie Crist is fighting the rate increases in court.

Here is the worst part.

The reason given for this law was to promote "competition." But then the telephone industry won a big court victory to make it much harder for rivals. Many competitors since that ruling have simply quit.

Now, I know what the local telephone companies claim. There is plenty of competition, especially cable and Internet. Bright House Networks just started. Knology is offering it. Some people are switching to wireless. (Of course, all of this costs a lot more.)

But in the intermediate run, this state law allows "incumbent" phone companies like Verizon and BellSouth to milk the old-style, wire-in-the-wall customers. It is a brutal abuse of state power used to rob the last generations of customers of the old monopoly.

Here, one more time, is the list of how our area's members of the Legislature voted on the bill to raise telephone rates.

Here's who voted yes in the House:

Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz; Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City; Faye Culp, R-Tampa; Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg; Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa; Ed Homan, R-Tampa; Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; Ken Littlefield, R-Wesley Chapel; Sandy Murman, R-Tampa; Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg.

Here's who voted no in the House:

Tom Anderson, R-Dunedin; Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater; Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor; John Carassas, R-Belleair; Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey; Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg; David Russell, R-Brooksville; Leslie Waters, R-Seminole.

Here are the senators who voted yes:

Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island; Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.

Here are the senators who voted no:

Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon; Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Les Miller, D-Tampa.

[Last modified October 10, 2004, 01:14:55]

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