“Business, consumer advocates push legislative issues”

By Walter C. Jones
Morris News Service

ATLANTA — Some of the issues legislators will consider this year with the broadest impact are those advocated by business organizations and consumer watchdogs.

And contrary to what many people might think, the two groups aren’t always on opposing sides.

The best example is transportation funding, one of the most discussed issues before this session of the General Assembly. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce and most local chapters rank roads as their top priority, arguing that traffic congestion is costly to them and could limit job growth.

“If you can’t get your goods and products to market, if you can’t get folks to work every day, you’re not going to be successful,” Georgia Chamber President Chris Clark said in Lawrenceville last fall.

The solution relies on added money, the organization acknowledges.

“We have to invest long-term in transportation if we’re going to be successful as a state,” he noted.
Many groups who say their mission is to represent ordinary Georgians agree about the need, especially for mass transit. In this case, some of the opposition comes from within the business community itself, like convenience-store operators and the National Federation of Independent Business’ state chapter.

“Our members are also concerned by any discussion of raising taxes or imposing new fees on small businesses,” said Kyle Jackson, the state director. “Our members still haven’t recovered fully from the Great Recession, and there’s a real concern that at least some legislators might try to shift the cost of fixing Georgia’s roads onto the backs of small business.”

So far, legislative leaders have presented no plan yet.

Perhaps the clearest example of merging interests between consumer advocates and businesses is legislation to streamline the financing of solar installations for homes and small businesses. The state’s utilities, solar installers, environmental groups and activists like Georgia Watch are all backing a bill that won approval in a House subcommittee Tuesday before it was even introduced by Rep. Mike Dudgeon, R-Johns Creek.

“He has shown great leadership facilitating this negotiation between our industries,” said Heather Teilhet, lobbyist for Georgia EMC. “Furthermore, the EMCs, Oglethorpe Power, Georgia Power, MEAG, the Electric Cities, and the solar industry have negotiated fairly, openly and in good faith.”

Other issues for the Georgia Chamber include continued low taxes, unfettered access to energy and water, health cost containment and more efficient use of education funding. A real-estate developer group, the Council for Quality Growth, has a legislative agenda that includes “enhanced tax incentives,” reduced regulation of wetlands, and interbasin water transfers.

On the consumer side, Georgia Watch, an Atlanta-based advocacy, is involved in four other issues besides solar financing. It opposes efforts to remove the cap on fees charged by debt-settlement services and a bill to require nursing-home patients to submit to binding arbitration of disputes rather than lawsuits.

Three days into the session, the chairmen of the House and Senate judiciary committees told Georgia Watch members they agree with the group’s stance on debt-settlement and arbitration.

“I’m very reluctant to do anything that limits access to the courts,” said House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs.

He also announced Friday that he is sponsoring a bill to protect stock brokers and other investment bankers from lawsuits if they report suspected flimflams against the elderly or disabled. That won praise from Georgia Watch as well as the Coalition of Advocates for Georgia’s Elderly.

“Those that prey on seniors in Georgia should beware!” warned Kathy Floyd, executive director of the Georgia Council on Aging.

Georgia Watch and other consumer advocates have at the top of their wish list legislative approval to expand Medicaid, as envisioned in Obamacare. They are mindful of repeated comments by legislative leaders that expansion is unlikely, but this week Sen. Dean Burke, a Bainbridge physician and a Republican, estimated there was a five in 10 chance lawmakers would make an about-face.

Another longtime goal of the health-related consumer groups is boosting the tax on cigarettes. They see it as a way to discourage children from starting an unhealthy habit, but conservatives have resisted any sort of tax increase. However, Senate Republicans are investigating a tobacco-tax hike partly as a way to fund transportation.

Inevitably, there will be some clashes between business interests and consumer groups over the session’s months ahead, but representatives of each side predicted a relatively quiet session so far.

Source: Augusta Chronicle
Follow Walter Jones on Twitter @MorrisNews and Facebook or contact him at walter.jones@morris.com.