tampabay.com

Consumer groups urge Crist to veto cable bill

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published May 10, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - It's called the "Consumer Choice Act of 2007, " but consumer activists have joined city officials across Florida in urging Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the legislation that's designed to increase cable television competition and lower rates.

Crist said Wednesday that he's not yet had a chance to review the bill (HB 529), which would shift cable franchising authority from local governments to the state.

Consumer groups say customer service standards are too loose and the state will be unable to enforce them as well as cities and counties. They also predict communities will lose public access channels.

"In the pursuit of the valuable goal of competition in cable TV markets, the Florida Legislature has managed to craft a policy that is unfriendly to consumers, " said Joel Kelsey, grass roots coordinator at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

The Florida Public Interest Research Group and the Consumer Federation of the Southeast also urge a veto.

The Florida League of Cities contends the bill would nullify local governments' existing contracts and give cable companies preferential treatment over other utilities that use public rights of way.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, said the objections are misplaced or involve minor issues that can be addressed through subsequent legislation.

He said the issues were thoroughly discussed by the Legislature and noted the bill overwhelmingly passed 117-1 in the House and 30-3 in the Senate.

Florida Public Interest Research Group legislative director Brad Ashwell said rates probably would drop at first, but he predicted they eventually would increase unless more than two companies compete in the same territory.

Walter Dartland, executive director of the Consumer Federation of the Southeast, said he would like to see the Public Service Commission, which regulates other utilities, oversee cable service.

The bill gives the Agriculture and Consumer Services departments oversight while the Attorney General's Office will handle discrimination complaints.