Legislation will jack up phone bills

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2003 at 11:11 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Millions of Floridians can expect their phone bills to rise within the next several months under legislation that will soon reach the desk of Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Florida Legislature, which has been unable to reach a deal on how to balance the state budget or solve the state's medical malpractice woes during a 60-day session, was poised late Wednesday to approve legislation pushed by the powerful telecommunications industry.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who last year vetoed a similar measure just months before his re-election, is expected to sign this new version into law.

The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved the measure on a 27-12 vote and it appeared as if the House would follow later in the evening. Supporters of the legislation have tried to downplay the potential rate hikes by contending that the bill would lead to lower long-distance costs and increased competition for local service.

But a handful of lawmakers said that the phone companies were ``spinning'' the truth and that the companies were relying on a cadre of well-connected lobbyists in order to push the measure into law.

``If it really was a good thing you wouldn't have a million and one telephone lobbyists trying to improve their profits,'' said Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg.

Cowin was one of eight Republicans and four Democrats who voted against the bill.

Some of the 27 senators who voted for the bill acknowledged that the legislation would in fact lead to rate hikes on phone bills, but said it was a necessary evil to create a competitive environment.

``Are there going to be winners and losers in the short term? Yes,'' said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua. ``But I believe it will be in the long-term best interest of the consumer.''

Sen. Michael Bennett, R-Bradenton, called it ``medicine'' that ``tastes bad'' but will ultimately prove helpful.

``I believe with all my heart that the additional competition that will occur because of this bill will help down the road those we are trying to protect,'' Bennett said.

Florida heavily regulated phone companies until 1995 when it passed a deregulation bill that was meant to let local phone companies offer long-distance service and allow long-distance carriers to offer local phone service. But that much-promised competition hasn't happened.

The blame has been placed on so-called ``access rates,'' which local phone companies charge long-distance carriers such as AT&T and MCI to use their phone lines. Those costs are passed on to long-distance customers. Local phone companies say they use these ``access rates'' to subsidize the cost of local rates.

The legislation passed on Wednesday allows local phone companies to lower their access rates over a two- to four-year period and raise local phone rates in return. It is estimated that BellSouth customers would pay up to $3.50 more a month, Verizon customers would pay $5 more a month and Sprint customers would pay $7.25 more.

Companies must petition the Public Service Commission before they can raise local rates, but the PSC must let the companies lower their access rates and raise local rates if the regulators believe it will ``enhance'' competition. Critics say the legislation guarantees rate hikes because regulators will have little choice but to approve the request. Phone companies can ask to change their rates this summer.

Bush contends the PSC has enough power now that he can support the legislation.

``It's acceptable because the PSC now has authority it didn't have in the previous bill,'' Bush said. ``If there's not a proven sign that there is competition then they don't have to raise rates.''

But consumer advocates said Bush was wrong and that consumers would soon feel the brunt of rate hikes.

``It's a shame,'' said Lyn Bodiford, state affairs coordinator for the AARP, which has fiercely opposed the bill. ``It's clearly a bill that is unfriendly to consumers. And in the end lawmakers will know that.''

Telecommunications companies and their lobbyists have poured in an estimated $5 million into campaign coffers of the two political parties and the accounts of politicians over the past two years. The state's three main phone companies and AT&T hired two former House speakers, a top Republican Party fund-raiser and friends and former aides of Bush.

The list of nearly 100 lobbyists includes Courtney Bense, the daughter of Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, and the next House speaker, and Michael Corcoran, a former aide to House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, who also worked on Byrd's re-election campaign.

Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, suggested the bill was only succeeding because of the clout of the telephone company lobbyists and the money they poured into campaigns.

``In all honesty this is not a consumer-friendly bill,'' said Argenziano. ``This is the biggest suppository legislation we have been requested to introduce into the body politic.''

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