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The politicians' telephone loophole

The second telephone at our home has an unpublished number. Within hours after it had been installed, a salesperson called. She wanted to sell us a subscription to the Times.

I pointed out that as a long-time staffer, I most certainly already had one. And by the way, how had she come by the number?

It used to belong to someone whose subscription had lapsed. Every so often, the computer would faithfully dial it again, never complaining during the months when no one answered.

Sophisticated telemarketing, sad to say, is what newspapers have to do to keep their circulation up these days, especially in transient communities such as most of those in Florida.

I mention this by way of disclosing a conflict concerning the subject matter to follow.

Florida has a law that allows people to put their home, mobile and pager telephone numbers on a "No Sales Solicitation Calls" list maintained by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Telemarketers are required to purchase the list and refrain from calling anyone who's on it. After the third offense in a 12-month period, each new violation can result in a $10,000 fine.

There are, however, only 84,000 people on the list. Some people may mind the small fee ($10 to get on and $5 a year to renew). Many probably don't know about it. Others may not think it's worth the bother no matter how much they gripe about being annoyed during dinner.

It could also be because the law is full of loopholes. By applying only to sales of goods or services, it exempts charities, religious organizations, educational institutions, and political candidates, campaigns and parties. Newspapers are specifically exempt.

Bills were introduced in both houses of the Legislature to close the loopholes by changing the thrust from "sales" calls to solicitations of any kind. No exceptions. The fine would be cut to $5,000. That's how the House passed it Monday.

But as the bill has been amended by a Senate committee, lo and behold, a certain favored class of people would remain exempt:


I say again, politicians!

Shakespeare penned a line that says it all:

"Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed, that he is grown so great?" Both bills at present also contain a fuzzy clarification for religious organizations, which sponsor Mark Ogles, R-Bradenton, says is intended to permit them to call only existing subscribers "for the sole purpose of soliciting attendance at a religious service or event, or soliciting a commitment to volunteer time or service . . ."

The language may need some work.

Ogles, whose bill was held up in the House by colleagues hoping to exempt themselves along the lines of the Senate bill, was furious at the idea.

"It's ludicrous," he said.

As he explains his bill, it would prohibit politicians from calling anyone on the list even for just their votes, let alone contributions.

"We're the last people they want to hear from anyway," he said.

The politicians' protective amendment was added to the Senate bill by Sen. Al Gutman, R-Miami.

"There's just too many variables involved in a campaign. That's just too much to worry about," Gutman explained.

You have to wonder if he was really trying, shrewdly, to kill the bill.

On the other hand, Gutman has a genuine record of insensitive self-interest.

He had to quit the Senate Health Care Committee (and pay a small administrative fine) after it was disclosed that he had brokered the sale of health maintenance organizations while he was a member and eventual chairman of the influential committee. He pocketed $500,000 for one such deal. Despite that, he's unopposed for re-election. There's still time, but he has already raised nearly $200,000, enough to make any would-be challenger think twice.

Some civil libertarians claim the whole idea of a "no-call" list is unconstitutional. I don't agree. You pay for your phone, you ought to have the right to hang a "no trespassing" sign on it. But politicians ought not to be the only people exempt.

Personally, I prefer using an answering machine to screen out the calls I don't want to take. It's cheaper in the long run, and it makes the politicians, poll takers, telephone slammers and all the rest waste their time only to hear our recording say, "If you're not selling something . . ."

Now if they'd just invent a gimmick like that for e-mail.