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Lawmaker sweetens bill with plum for ratepayers

The House majority leader uses an old amendment trick with a new twist in hopes of killing an endless charge on utility bills.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2001


The House majority leader uses an old amendment trick with a new twist in hopes of killing an endless charge on utility bills.

TALLAHASSEE -- To avoid attention, state lawmakers often provide little explanation as they slip amendments into legislation to benefit specific lobbyists or special interests.

On Monday, House Majority Leader Mike Fasano used that technique to try to surprise a special interest instead.

Quickly and quietly, the New Port Richey Republican amended a utility bill in a way that could cost private utilities such as Florida Water Services Corp. hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The change would prevent Florida Water and others from indefinitely billing customers for the costs tied to persuading the Public Service Commission to let them raise rates. Instead, the utilities would have to roll rates back after four years of collecting for the rate case expenses.

Fasano filed the amendment late Friday in an effort to avoid scrutiny. Then he made his move on a non-controversial utility bill. His amendment came up as most legislators were waiting for Gov. Jeb Bush and a live conversation with the international space station crew as they flew over the Pacific Ocean.

"This just puts back language that was taken out in 1999," Fasano said.

That was the only explanation. The amendment was approved on a voice vote.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, is primarily aimed at reaffirming that the state's public counsel will represent ratepayers in water and wastewater issues before county governments. It is expected to be up for a final vote in the House today, and a similar bill is awaiting further committee hearings in the Senate.

Fasano's surprise amendment was an attempt to correct another surprise change in the law two years ago.

In 1999, Bush signed into law controversial changes that enable private water and sewer companies to charge their current customers at rates based on the cost of projected growth over five years instead of 18 months. Legislators from Pasco and Hernando counties, among others, failed to persuade Bush to veto it.

But the law also included the change that lets those utilities bill customers for expenses associated with rate cases forever -- even after they have recovered costs. Afterward, even the senator who sponsored that change acknowledged he did not understand its impact.

"That was just gravy for the industry," Mike Twomey, a lobbyist for Florida Utility Watch, which is composed of civic associations and homeowners, said Monday. "It was completely unwarranted."

Lobbyists for Florida Water, the state's largest private water utility, could not be reached for comment Monday.

The charges are less than a couple of dollars a month on customers' water and sewer bills.

Water companies say that regulators must approve their overall rates based on all their costs, no matter how the charges are broken down. They say as long as they aren't earning more than regulators say they should, they shouldn't have their rates cut.

Fasano's amendment would undo what was done two years ago regarding the fees tied to rate cases. Talking with reporters after the vote, he said he had hoped his change would not be noticed yet.

After all, the change in the law that benefited utilities wasn't noticed until it was too late.

"How about a snooker for the consumer?" Fasano said with a smile.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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