Phone-rate effort may be revived


Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 4, 2003 at 9:57 a.m.

Tallahassee

There are growing signs that Florida lawmakers may try again to push legislation that would raise basic telephone rates.

The Legislature overwhelmingly passed a similar measure last year (HB 1863), but Gov. Jeb Bush in a surprise move decided to veto the bill.

If the bill had become law, local phone companies would have been able to raise local phone rates anywhere from $3 to $7 more a month over the next few years. Proponents of the bill argued that the increase in local rates would have been countered by decreases in long-distance charges and more competition for residential phone service.

But Bush last week acknowledged that his staff has been contacted by telephone companies eager to revive the legislation. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, has also held a meeting with one of the measure's primary opponents, the AARP, where he talked about the possibility that the bill would be filed again.

Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, chairman of the Senate Communications and Public Utilities Committee, said he has had brief discussions with telephone company representatives as well. But he said he has told them that he won't consider any legislation without assurances that the governor would support the bill this year.

"I am not going to go out and fight for it without a consensus," said Bennett, who voted for the phone-rate bill when he was a House member. ''We don't need any huge fights with the governor or the House right now. If they have addressed the governor's concerns, I'd be happy to look at it."

Bush, who often talks about his belief in free markets and less regulation, said last week he is willing to consider legislation that would remove the pricing controls now on local phone service. "If our concerns can be met, I would be supportive of going back to the Legislature with a bill," Bush said.

But Bush said a viable bill would have to grant broad powers to the Florida Public Service Commission, letting that appointed panel decide if local phone companies should be able to raise rates.

Phone companies in the past have been less than enthusiastic about giving additional regulatory power to the PSC and argue that this goes against the deregulation trend that has been occurring in the industry.

Local projects

This is a tight budget year, with some estimating that state lawmakers face as much as a $4 billion deficit in the coming year.

But that fiscally dim outlook won't prevent lawmakers from lobbying for a wide assortment of local projects and initiatives. In fact, senators last week submitted a local project list totaling more than $1.9 billion, although some requests are duplicated because more than one senator is seeking funding for the same project.

The House has yet to release its local project list, although it would be expected to largely mirror the Senate requests.

Critics label some of the lawmakers' requests as "turkeys," which is what pork-barrel projects are called in Tallahassee.

But it's hard to fault the intention behind many of the projects, which often represent requests from local communities and governments and involved such things as health clinics, education programs, roads, sewage treatment and social-service programs.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said the member projects are just as valid as requests made by the state agencies.

''The priorities are going to be funded in terms of what we feel is good for Florida,'' Pruitt said. ''In terms of a project that an agency has versus what a member has, as far as I'm concerned, they're on the same level.''

But Pruitt, who has requested more than $60 million in projects, said the state's money problems will likely prevent lawmakers from winning approval for many of their requests.

''This is a very lean budget,'' he said. ''I don't think there is a going to be a lot of opportunity for that.''

Underscoring that point was Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, who didn't submit any local project requests.

In the Gainesville area, Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, has asked for $31.4 million in community items. He has requested about $13 million for various sewage-treatment programs in Hampton, Columbia County, Waldo, High Springs, Starke and Hawthorne.

He has also requested $1 million for an Alzheimer's initiative at the University of Florida and $2 million for a downtown Gainesville stormwater basin.

Smith has asked for $1.4 million for the Bradford County library, $1 million for a Gilchrist County judicial complex and $5 million for reading initiatives.

Compiled from reports by Gary Fineout and Lloyd Dunkelberger of the Sun Tallahassee Bureau.

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