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Session of squabbling produces little

Consumers will see their local telephone bills rise while losing a popular tax break for back-to-school shopping and a proposed break for satellite and cable TV.

"I think this is overall a very poor session for the consumer," said Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group. "There is nothing good coming for the consumer."

The proposal consumer groups considered the worst raises monthly phone bills in the Tampa Bay area as much as $5 over the next five years, which they call the largest increase in residential phone rates in at least two decades.

In return, long-distance carriers are supposed to lower their charges, but advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service will pay more and that the companies won't keep their promise to lower rates for a significant period of time.

"The telecommunications bill is one of the worst pieces of legislation I've seen in my 16 sessions as attorney general," Bob Butterworth said. "It's going to cost a lot of people a lot of money, and a lot of little people a lot of money."

The state sales tax holiday, which for the past four years gave back-to-school shoppers a nine-day break from the 6 percent tax on some clothes and school supplies, died. So did a plan to lower taxes for cable and satellite TV customers. Both could be reconsidered, though, when the Legislature returns to finish the budget.

Lawmakers had considered a consumer-friendly bill to crack down on the escalating problem of predatory mortgage lending, in which companies trap desperate people into high-priced loans.

But they passed a bill that satisfied the financial industry but not consumer groups. AARP, which made the bill its top priority, contends that the new law won't target enough loans or prevent high-pressure tactics.

In insurance, two bills died that would have helped some of the 2.1-million uninsured in Florida get stripped-down health insurance at lower prices.

All Floridians who pay homeowners or rental insurance are expected to benefit, however, from a plan that reduces the amount of special assessments charged after major storms in Florida. It also would cap the rate increases for those who have waterfront homes, including 16,000 in the Tampa Bay area.

"The passage of this legislation is a victory for Florida homeowners," said Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher.

Some legislation got little public attention. "Countless small things can slip in under the radar," said Lyn Bodiford of AARP. "Consumers need to pay more attention to the Legislature."

The state will regulate moving companies within Florida to help prevent customers from being ripped off.

Businesses will be forced to test certain foods to determine whether they have been mislabeled "diet" food.

But a bill that would have more tightly regulated funeral and cemetery services didn't pass.