Utility lending bill runs into opposition

By Jill Nolin – Daily Citizen-News

A proposal to let local governments borrow money for electric utility projects without a public vote has run into resistance at the state Capitol. 

The statewide bill is essentially tailored for Dalton Utilities, which owns 1.6 percent of the costly Plant Vogtle expansion project. The utility wants state lawmakers to eliminate a public referendum that is currently required before they can issue bonds for electric system-related projects.

Dalton Utilities’ chief executive officer, Tom Bundros, told lawmakers Friday that the utility does not need to borrow money to cover its share of the cost to finish two new nuclear reactors at Vogtle near Waynesboro. That project is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Bundros said the utility’s share, which is expected to run another $80 million, would come from “internally generated cash flow.” He also said the utility does not anticipate the need to borrow money for the next five years.

“Well, if you don’t want to borrow any more money, why do you need this?” said Rep. Penny Houston, R-Nashville.

Bundros likened it to having a home equity line of credit that is only there for emergencies. He noted that the utility is not required to hold a referendum when borrowing money for other purposes, such as refurbishing water treatment facilities.

“We need the f lexibility to make decisions and operate as a well-run business at the time we need to make the decision,” said Joe Yarbrough, chairman of the utility’s board.

Bundros, Yarbrough and Roy Bowen, president of the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, made their case Friday for

freeing Dalton Utilities from the referendum requirement, which they said would protect the state’s flooring industry.

The bill, which is sponsored by the governor’s floor leaders, hinges on the passage of a local act supported by Whitfield County’s legislators.

Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, has such a bill drafted, but he has said he is waiting for the Dalton City Council’s approval.

He’ll need the support of the two other legislators who represent Whitfield County, which is home to Dalton. Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, said he would support the measure if the council officially endorses it.

But Rep. Jason Ridley, R-Chatsworth, said this week that he has reservations about the proposal.

“I’m not real big on taking people’s rights away,” Ridley said in an interview. “I just think there’s nothing better than a ballot to see what people’s real feelings are on things.”

Bundros said he has concerns that “there could emerge grassroots momentum that says, ‘Well, we don’t want Dalton Utilities to grow anymore. We don’t believe that they should acquire any additional generation and transmission.’” Bundros noted that “industry is 70 percent of the revenues but not necessarily 70 percent of the voting bloc.” He expressed concern at an earlier meeting that, should the utility need to borrow money for Plant Vogtle, environmental advocates might try to defeat a public request to do so.

But some have raised other objections.

“This is just simply to avoid a public discussion about the millions on Plant Vogtle and if it’s wise and if there is any stopping point in the future,” Ed Painter, a Dalton resident and ratepayer, told lawmakers Friday, saying he was there “on behalf of the public.”

“I’m not against Plant Vogtle,” he continued. “I’m just saying I would like to hear a public discussion. I would like to see a little bit of openness on exactly what we’re obligated to.”

Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, which is a consumer advocacy group, urged the House Ways and Means Committee to slow down the measure.

“For this body to take action that would specifically benefit one interest (group) without thinking about the ramifications for voters across this state and the people paying the power bills across this state would be very troubling,” Coyle said.

Lawmakers on the committee opted to table the bill Friday, but they will likely revisit the issue Monday, when the Dalton City Council

is expected to make a decision. A council meeting has been called for Monday at noon.

“We need to give them a thumbs up or thumbs down sooner rather than later,” Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock said Friday afternoon.

Crossover day, which is the deadline for a bill to clear a chamber to have the best chance of becoming law, is Wednesday.

Councilman Gary Crews said Friday that there is likely enough support among council members.

“We still have some questions,” Crews said.

Councilman Tyree Goodlett, though, said he is concerned about a measure that “takes away something from the people,” in this case the referendum.

“That’s a major concern,” Goodlett said. “Plus, we should have a chance to educate the people. I feel like they have dropped the ball when it comes to letting the public know what’s going on.

“I’m not pointing fingers at anyone,” he added. “We owe it to the people to make sure we put everything on the table, and everyone knows what we are doing and why, and I’m not sure we have done that in this case.”

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