News From The Director’s Chair

By Angela Speir Phelps
May 15, 2011

If you put lipstick on a pig it will most likely just look silly – it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a pig – stinky yet adorned. The same can be said for Senate Bill 160, one of this legislative session’s most egregious bills. It’s a bad bill that got amended in the eleventh hour of session to close an ethics loophole. The loophole allowed lobbyist spending on state employees to go unreported – that loophole is now closed – thanks to the amendment. Although the amendment is good, the bill is bad and it was the wrong bill to attach this amendment to.

Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Senator Don Balfour, will allow utilities regulated by the state to contribute directly to the campaigns of political candidates. It overturns a state law that’s been in the Georgia code for more than 30 years. The law has been there for thirty-five years for good reason. Utilities are monopolies that have tremendous authority granted to them by lawmakers, including the power of eminent domain, allowing utilities to take land if necessary to run pipes or build infrastructure. Eminent domain is a power normally reserved for the government. The legislature determines the monopoly service territory of the utilities, and as evidenced by Senate Bill 31 which passed in 2009, the legislature can impact the rates utilities charge their customers. Senate Bill 31, also sponsored by Senator Don Balfour, was crafted to allow Georgia Power to collect a billion dollars in advance profit on the construction of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle – even though the units will not generate power for several more years. The bill was written to exempt large customers from paying this fee – leaving small businesses and residential customers to bear the monthly burden.

Utility customers do not have a choice of service providers and legally must pay the rate they are charged for basic necessities. Utilities do not operate in a competitive marketplace. Their only oversight comes from elected officials. For these reasons – it is not a good idea to enact Senate Bill 160. Powerful monopolies overseen by elected officials should not be allowed to bankroll campaigns. It’s a bad idea and a conflict of interest- which is why Georgia Public Service Commissioners are still prohibited from accepting campaign contributions from the entities they regulate.

Georgia Watch and the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform supported the amendment to Senate Bill 160 to close the lobbyist loophole – but the lobbyist loophole fix could have been attached to any number of bills that were better suited to the issue. Senate Bill 160 will allow entities that are already very influential over state policy- even greater influence. It strongly tilts the scale in favor of the powerful special interests over the voice of the little guy- Georgians who are already struggling to keep their business afloat or a roof over their head. We the people may not have the deep pockets or hired lobbyists with the political clout the utilities have- but we do have a voice at the voting booth. This bill passed out of the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously, and received yes votes from most of the Republicans and Democrats on the Senate floor. Many who voted for this bill campaigned on a platform of campaign finance reform and accountability. It is our responsibility, as part of our great democracy, to hold those elected to serve us accountable.

The 2011 legislative session drove home the need for consumer advocacy at the capitol. Special interests are firmly entrenched in our state and we need your help now more than ever to stand up for Georgians. Georgia Watch is working hard to protect consumers, promote transparency, and empower citizens. Please help us by sharing information about Georgia Watch with your family, friends, and neighbors and please contribute today to help us continue fighting the good fight on your behalf. Please support our work- through your tax deductible contribution today. We need your help, and appreciate your support.
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