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Watch your wallets: Tallahassee's on the line

You might remember that last spring, your good friends in the Florida Legislature voted to help you by raising your local telephone rates.

Even in an election year, the influence of Florida's telephone companies was so strong that the bill sailed through both House and Senate. It was stopped only by the veto of Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Wait 'til next year!" the telephone companies grumbled to each other.

Well, now it's next year. It is an odd-numbered year, too, with no election looming. Our lawmakers have even less reason to fear the voters. Meanwhile, they will feel even more pressure from the phone folks.

There is no specific deal yet. But already, several "shell" bills have been filed in the Legislature _ blank pieces of paper, more or less, that can be filled in later with whatever chicanery the players come up with.

On Tuesday, the key committees in both the House and the Senate took their first dips into these waters, getting briefings and kicking around the general concepts.

The basic problem is this:

If we really want local phone service to become more "competitive" in Florida, then somebody has to pay more money. Everybody up here pretty much thinks that it ought to be you, the residential customer.

Local phone companies, such as Southern Bell and Verizon, say that we local customers are just an awful burden to them because they don't charge us enough. It is sweet, really, how much they have carried us.

The long-distance companies, meanwhile, do not like having to pay high "access" charges to connect to the local company, especially for in-state calls.

So the mantra, the thing you keep hearing from all sides in Tallahassee, is that telephone rates need to be "rebalanced."

That's what last year's bill tried to do. It cut the charges that long-distance companies had to pay to local companies. Then it let the local companies make up the lost cash by charging it to you.

You know. "Rebalanced."

The official story was that residential customers would break even because the long-distance guys would cut rates. Riiiiight. That ignored the fact that some customers make few or no long-distance calls to begin with, and others use cell phones. Besides, there was no guarantee in the bill that rates couldn't be raised again the next day.

The real problem is that Florida does NOT have a truly competitive market for residential phone service, and nobody has a good idea of how to create one.

All of the attempts so far, in 1995 and 1999 and last year, were ham-handed cash grabs by the existing telephone companies. Let us take more of your money, the phone companies say, and the market will become more competitive. Florida will become more attractive to new investors, new rivals. Honest.

It is a stale, 8-year-old promise.

During these past cash grabs, not many members of the Legislature really understood this issue. Most waited, like they often do in complicated issues, for the insiders involved to strike a "deal." They waited to hear that it was a "good bill" and that everybody had "signed off on it." Then they voted the way their leaders told them.

This year, for what it's worth, the guy in charge of the House committee _ Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach _ tells me he is determined for members to develop a working knowledge of the issue and decide for themselves. He said he wants to hear from supporters and opponents of last year's bill.

"We're not going to be blindsided" by anything presented as a done deal, Mayfield said. I hope he's sincere.

Look, the setup for local phone service we have now is not going to survive. It can't. The local companies are losing their business customers to new competitors. In the long run, the most lucrative customers will be "cherry-picked" away, and the doddering old "incumbent" companies will be left holding the bag, even going under.

So, yes, let's talk about how to get to the future. But until the Legislature comes up with something a little more creative than, "Let's just stick it to the residential customers," it will keep facing resistance. Rightly so.

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