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A sneaky way to raise phone rates

Before leaving town Friday, the Florida Legislature left the back door open for telephone companies to get the rate increase for local phone service that lawmakers were afraid to give them in a recorded vote. This telecommunications bill mugs consumers, and Gov. Lawton Chiles shouldn't let them get away with it.

Fearing a voter backlash, lawmakers pulled a similar bill earlier in the session that would have nearly doubled the cost of basic phone service over the next several years. Last week, they threw their support behind the new measure that could still send phone bills soaring. The only difference is someone else would get the blame.

The new legislation shifts responsibility for studying a rate increase from the Legislature to the Public Service Commission, which would be required to come up with "fair and reasonable rates" to charge consumers.

Phone companies claim the higher fees would be offset by lower long-distance rates and cheaper fees for frills such as call-waiting. But all that would do is hit low-income customers in the wallet, because few subscribe to the luxury services that would be discounted.

An equally offensive part of the bill would force the PSC to consider consumers' incomes in the process of recommending new rates, while allowing phone company profits to remain secret.

The legislation contains a few positive provisions, including limits on "slamming," the practice of switching a customer's long distance service without permission, and "cramming," the addition of unwarranted charges on a customer's bill. But even these important protections do not make up for the bill's overwhelming anti-consumer bias.

The governor should send lawmakers a message: If you want to raise the telephone bills of Floridians, you're going to have to vote on it and then go home and explain your vote to the people.