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Capital Report

Survey finds seniors not enthused about some legislative bills

By Tom Flanigan

Tallahassee, FL – Call it consumer backlash if you will. A few pro-business bills now working their way through the Florida Legislature are drawing fire from groups such as A-A-R-P. Tom Flanigan reports that organization has released a survey of older Floridians that suggests many of the state's seniors are already stretched to their financial limit.

The question posed to just over four-hundred Floridians fifty-years-old and up was simple and to the point.

"How difficult is it for you to pay your electric bills, and we're really pretty stunned and surprised to find out that out of six million people fifty and over, 10 percent said extremely difficult'; another six-percent very difficult' and another 24-percent somewhat difficult.' So that's four-in-ten people fifty and over in the state of Florida who are having some difficulty paying their electric bills right now."

That's A-A-R-P Florida Interim State Director Jeff Johnson. He told reporters on Monday that even though so many older Floridians are already having trouble paying their power bill, things could get worse because of some ideas now kicking around the Capitol.

"There was one that was raised by the governor's transition team early-on about raising utility rates for residential consumers as well as most businesses to create a fund to try to lure new businesses to Florida."

And Johnson says there's a real bill in the pipeline that could have the result of raising land-line telephone bills in Florida.

"On first read, it would seem to allow phone companies to raise basic local service as well as non-basic service pretty much at will without any Public Service Commission oversight and that's a real concern for us."

It's also a concern for Vicky Sims. She's a Capital City retiree who says she's all for bringing in new business and jobs, but...

"I have a question for those who might favor raising Florida's consumer electric rates or telephone rates in the interests of economic development: If consumers are not able to buy products, who is going to locate a new business in Florida?"

The upward pressure on Florida utility bills may not only be driven by legislation this year. There has been steadily growing pressure on the Florida Public Service Commission to allow investor-owned power companies to charge today's rate payers for the big projects of tomorrow such as new nuclear power plants. Charles Milsted tracks utility issues for A-A-R-P.

"Some of the people who will be paying now for a nuclear power plant may not be around when and if the plant is even created. And we know that some of the senators are concerned about this up-front cost - the construction while in progress'. I think that we may see a curtailment of that if in fact some world events start to override, but we'll have to follow that. We monitor it very closely and see what impact it could have on our population."

Milsted and Johnson say they also support plans by Governor Scott and lawmakers to attract more business to Florida. And Johnson insists his group's opposition to higher power and phone bills has nothing really to do with politics.

"Regardless of who's in charge, regardless of the level of government, there's always an opportunity for industry to try and push their advantage the advantage that they have with money. And it always is reliant on consumers to band together and respond."

For their part, officials at Florida's large investor-owned power companies, such as Florida Power and Light, have been taking a different tack. They say increasing the capacity and reliability of their grids is of sufficiently great value to customers and that there's a cost connected to that value. The land-line phone companies, meanwhile, have seen their business shrink dramatically because of wireless phones. Their executives say they are in effect no longer monopolies and should be freed from the rate regulation left over from the days when they were the only game in town.