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Consumer advocates see session as net loss

Homeowners will get $50 bonus checks in the mail this summer and then enjoy "tax holidays" during the August back-to-school shopping season.

Sounds like good news for consumers, right?

But when the Florida Legislature finished its work for the year Friday, the state's tiny contingent of consumer advocates was glum.

"This has been a year of business over the consumer," said state Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. "We've seen the creeping influence of the right wing."

Added Monte Belote, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network: "It's like (the movie) Dumb and Dumber. The Legislature is degenerating, from a consumer's perspective."

A $50 check and a few days without sales tax on clothes may make good politics. But they are mere drops in a consumer's bucket compared to the massive limits placed on consumer lawsuits against businesses accused of negligence, advocates said.

That measure, hailed by business groups and Republican leaders, aims to protect industries from frivolous lawsuits. But consumer advocates say "frivolous" is in the eye of the beholder.

"We're concerned about workers not being able to sue employers if they're injured on the job," said Marilyn Lenard, president of the state AFL-CIO.

Gov. Lawton Chiles has not said he will veto the plan but has expressed concerns that "somebody has to pay" when a person is injured by faulty equipment. If juries can't force businesses to pay awards, the state may have to pay for expenses such as medical care.

Republican leaders and business advocates disagree, insisting the limit on jury awards and lawsuits is good for consumers.

"The business community is consumers," said Lee Hinkle, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Consumers work hard to support their families. And if businesses are harmed, consumers can't work. There is nothing in this bill that would prohibit a consumer from filing a legitimate lawsuit."

Another major headache for consumer advocacy groups this year was a plan crafted by Florida's telephone industry to double the price of local phone service.

After weeks of debate and outrage from voters, lawmakers backed off the plan. But they turned it into legislation requiring the state Public Service Commission to study the matter and report its findings next year.

The problem: Regulators must use certain criteria that critics say will all but force them to recommend doubling rates.

"It will be the biggest rate case in state history" when the Legislature considers the issue again in 1999, said Ed Paschall, a volunteer AARP lobbyist.

The man who spearheaded the telephone legislation _ House Utilities & Communications Committee Chairman Joe Arnall, R-Jacksonville Beach _ has said backing off the plan to raise rates proves legislators listen to consumers.

Arnall said the public will be involved in the study, speaking at hearings and telling the PSC to keep rates low.

But consumer advocates are not impressed. "There's nothing good that can come from a study," said Mike Twomey, a lawyer who represents a dozen civic groups around the state on utility issues.

Consumer advocates also criticized lawmakers' refusal to expand eligibility for unemployment compensation payments to people who leave welfare for work, but lose their jobs before becoming eligible for jobless benefits.

In contrast, the Legislature's GOP leadership said after dismissing lawmakers Friday that they did a great job for consumers.

Said House Republican Leader Jim King: "I thought it was a great consumer year. When has the government ever given you back money?"