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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

AT&T, Verizon, and others score first dereg victory



Telecommunications giants like AT&T and Verizon scored a victory Thursday, when the House Energy & Utilities Policy committee passed a heavily lobbied bill to remove most state regulation and allow steeper rate hikes for all but the most basic landline phone services. Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St.Petersburg, voted no but said he hopes to see his concerns addressed as the bill progresses.

It was the first stop this session for the so-dubbed “Consumer Choice and Protection Act,” which – among other things – raises the maximum annual hike increase from 6 percent to 20 percent for most business and residential customers with landline phones.

The legislation, sponsored by Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford in the House and Indiatlantic Republican Mike Haridopolos in the Senate, also removes the regulatory power of the state’s Public Service Commission for all but basic, landline-only phone services. And poor Floridians, whose basic landline service is subsidized through a program called Lifeline, no longer would be shielded from basic local service rate increases.

But supporters insist such rate hikes won’t happen, because the bill will “open up competition.”

“Prices in the telecommunications industry have always gone down when you bring in competition,” said Weatherford.

Companies like AT&T, with its nearly 70 registered lobbyists in Florida, say they are pushing the bill because it levels the competitive playing field with cable companies, which offer phone service yet are not regulated by the PSC. If the cable guys’ phone services and rates aren’t regulated, AT&T and others argue, why should ours be? Phone companies including Verizon (with some two dozen lobbyists registered for this session) also say they’re losing customers to companies like Comcast, which can bundle phone, Internet and cable at attractive prices without going through the PSC.

“They’re saying, give us wiggle room – we’re losing customers and can’t be competitive,” said Sen. Jim King, the Jacksonville Republican who chairs the Senate’s energy policy committee.

He said he anticipates his committee will consider the legislation for the first time next week. But don’t expect a big reversal of fortune for the phone giants, who contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats and Republicans and are armed with a who’s who of Tallahassee lobbyists. Among them: Governor Charlie Crist’s friend and fundraiser Brian Ballard, Ron Book, and former Attorney General Jim Smith.

“It’s a done deal,” King said.

[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 7:32pm]


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