Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Largest Phone Rate Increase Ever Is Legal, State's High Court Decides; Public Service Commission Followed Law in $355 Million Requests, Court Says

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Largest Phone Rate Increase Ever Is Legal, State's High Court Decides; Public Service Commission Followed Law in $355 Million Requests, Court Says

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday backed the legality of the largest phone rate increase in state history, ruling that the Public Service Commission followed a 2003 state law in granting the $355 million requests.

All seven justices said commissioners correctly used a telecommunications law passed by the Legislature that was pushed by the phone industry and criticized by consumer advocates. Phone companies said the law would promote competition and lower prices; consumer groups said it would have the opposite effect.

Justices said the commission, as a state agency, was "entitled to great deference" and appeared to have followed the will of the legislators.

Justices R. Fred Lewis and Harry Lee Anstead added a special opinion emphasizing that the court was constrained to examining only the legality of the commission's decision -- not the merits of the companies' increases. Lewis also noted an inherent conflict in the law since companies are entitled to an environment of competition while consumers are entitled to affordable phone service.

"As pertains to the inherently conflicting obligations . . . the true and only recourse for all concerned stakeholders lies in the halls of the Florida Legislature," Lewis wrote.

AARP Florida Director Bentley Lipscomb said Lewis' point is worth emphasizing.

"The Legislature spends great quantities of words saying they're for lower taxes and lower costs, then they get away with laws like this," Lipscomb said. "How many people do you know who don't have a phone? Everybody has to pay this. This isn't much different than a tax increase."

Thursday's decision appears to end the court battle over the basic local service rate increases sought by BellSouth, Verizon and Sprint and approved by the Public Service Commission in December 2003. …

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