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Phone rates bill in Bush's hands

Monthly phone bills in the Tampa Bay area are expected to rise as much as $5 over the next five years under a plan overwhelmingly approved by the state Legislature and awaiting the governor's signature.

The higher cost of basic phone service is supposed to be offset by cheaper long distance calls within Florida. Now, phoning Miami can cost more than calling New York.

The controversial proposal, the largest increase in phone rates in at least 20 years, is strongly opposed by consumer advocates, Attorney General Bob Butterworth and most of the Tampa Bay area's state senators.

But the opposition didn't stop the Senate from passing the bill 26-9 on Thursday and the House 103-12 last week.

Supporters say the changes will promote competition among local phone companies so that within several years consumers could have several options, as they have with long distance companies. That could bring lower rates.

"It is my strong belief that we will provide competition in Florida, which will ultimately result in benefits to consumers of the state of Florida," said Sen. Skip Campbell, a sponsor of the bill.

But consumer advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance could pay as much as $8 more a month. They also worry that long distance companies will not keep their promise to lower rates for a significant period of time.

Besides, opponents say, why would telephone companies support something that increases their competition?

Some have started to lobby Gov. Jeb Bush to veto the bill.

"The public's getting ripped off," said Mike Twomey, executive director of the consumer group Florida Utility Watch. "The rate increases are going to be there."

The bill gives the Public Service Commission the final say, a provision Bush wanted, providing political cover in an election year.

"Despite the amendments that have been made, this legislation will result in higher phone bills for most Floridians for various reasons," Butterworth wrote in a letter to senators. He estimates 7 to 25 percent of Floridians might be forced to cancel service.

Consumer advocates have called the PSC provision a sham because the Legislature left little room for discretion. Companies can petition the PSC for higher rates after Dec. 1.

A handful of senators, led by Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, made the same argument to colleagues. Brown-Waite unsuccessfully fought to remove the "legislative findings" from the bill that she said would force the PSC to adopt the new rates.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, agreed with Brown-Waite but because Senate President John McKay asked him to oversee the debate he was unable to speak against it. He voted no.

"It's really bad for consumers," said Lyn Bodiford of AARP.

Bush was concerned about the bill earlier in the legislative session, but Campbell said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan told him Wednesday that Bush would sign the bill with the PSC provision.

"Until it is on the desk and we have an opportunity to review it we can't say what we will do," Brogan said on Thursday. "A comma or a semicolon can change the entire intent of legislation."

Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst said the governor is monitoring the bill but would not comment. "Gov. Bush has not yet taken a position," she said. "It's a very complicated bill, and he will have to review the language."

Without the legislation, the PSC can not take up issues of local rates or access fees. If the bill becomes law, the PSC would decide how much the rates would change, if at all.

Phone companies, which aren't supposed to profit from the proposal, insist the average consumer will break even. Their lobbyists pressed legislators to pass the bill and watched the vote at the Capitol on Thursday.

The Legislature opened up the local market to competition in 1995 but capped rates from 1995 to 2000 for most companies and 2001 for the state's largest company, BellSouth.

The proposal requires the three largest local phone companies _ Verizon, BellSouth and Sprint _ to reduce the fees they charge long distance companies for access to their networks.

Local fees would rise for residential customers and small businesses _ those with just one phone line _ but not big businesses, which telephone companies say pay more than their fair share.

Supporters say the changes will promote competition among local phone companies because the rate increases would mean they could afford to offer local service. Companies that offer local service say they are losing money.

Verizon, which has 2-million customers in the Tampa Bay area, estimates it would increase the monthly fee by $1 every year for five years.

The legislation allows more low income Floridians to be eligible for discounts for phone service, up to $12 on monthly bills.

"If we're going to potentially raise rates . . . then we must make sure that those who can least afford their phone service will not be in jeopardy," Sen. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Weston.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

What's next

Two things must happen before phone rates increase. First, Gov. Jeb Bush must sign the bill into law, which he is expected to do soon. Next, the Public Service Commission must approve it sometime after Dec. 1. The PSC can reject it, supporters say, though opponents disagree.

How they voted

NO: Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville; Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg; Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon; Sen. Jim Sebesata, R-St. Petersburg; Sen. Richard Mitchell, R-Jasper; Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa.

YES: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

DID NOT VOTE: Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg.

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