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    Lawmakers outflank legions of phone lobbyists

    By SHELBY OPPEL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- In the opening round of the biggest lobbying fight of the legislative session, state lawmakers managed to split the difference.

    On one side of the Capitol, a House committee on Tuesday all but killed a push by AT&T to lower the access charges it pays local carriers for the use of their phone lines.

    That's a victory for the local carriers but not for AT&T, which says lower access charges would mean lower long-distance bills for consumers.

    On the other side, a Senate committee essentially rewrote the measure to try to force a compromise or else let state regulators decide. That's a partial victory for AT&T, because it opens the door to lower access charges.

    Unfortunately for the 70-some lobbyists working the issue, it all happened at the same time. The result: Well-paid men and women in well-cut suits hustling back and forth across the brick courtyard, calling out votes ("12-to-4!") like they were recounting an early score in the NCAA basketball tournament.

    Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, chairman of the Senate committee, told executives of AT&T and the local phone carriers: "Looking at the lobbyist list, you probably created more jobs in the last two weeks than any other committee in the Senate."

    For consumers, the outcome remains unclear, regardless of who wins. AT&T says lowering the access charges would mean lower long-distance bills. Carriers insist they would have to raise local phone rates to compensate for $177-million in lost revenue.

    The chances that AT&T will persuade lawmakers to reduce the access charges themselves grew slimmer Tuesday, as the House Committee on Utilities and Telecommunications defeated the measure 13 to 4. State Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, the bill's co-sponsor, voted against it, allowing her to move that it be reconsidered at a future meeting.

    The House committee could choose to vote again on the bill, but AT&T will have to change several lawmakers' minds to get a different result.

    "We're hopeful that the Senate will see the wisdom of the House and follow accordingly," said Bob Elek, spokesman for Verizon Communications, the local carrier for Hillsborough, Pinellas and most of Pasco County.

    That didn't happen Tuesday, when the Senate kept AT&T's hopes alive, albeit altering them significantly.

    Instead of voting to lower the access charges, the committee approved by a 6 to 3 vote an amended version that would set an Oct. 1 deadline for compromise.

    Public Counsel Jack Shreve, who represents consumers, and the Public Service Commission would have to sign off on any agreement.

    The two sides, however, have talked before and failed to agree, which is partly how the issue ended up in lawmakers' laps.

    If no agreement is reached, or if regulators reject it, the Senate version would direct the Public Service Commission to devise its own solution.

    That portion was proposed by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. The bill must clear two more committees before it can be voted on by the full Senate.

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