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Crawford: Georgia lawmakers surrender to utilities
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If you read through the bills introduced each year by our legislators, you will find some measures that are intended to accomplish one thing and one thing only: They transfer money or power to someone who already has plenty of both.

These bills are generally bad for the average Georgian because they provide such one-sided benefits to powerful interest groups, but quite often they become law. A good example of this is a bill drafted last week on the Senate side, SB 160.

This bill, if passed, would allow Georgia Power Co., Atlanta Gas Light and other utilities that are regulated by the state to give money directly to political candidates during election campaigns.

The people who work for regulated utilities have always been able to make personal contributions to candidates, but the utilities themselves have been prohibited from donating directly to a political campaign.

There's a good reason for that. What the utilities charge you for gas or electricity is partly determined by our elected politicians, either on the Public Service Commission or in the General Assembly. If a power company was allowed to bankroll the election of its favored candidates, it could run up your monthly bill for electricity without having to worry about pushback from regulatory officials.

That's why the state, in its wisdom, has not allowed the utilities to participate directly in financing those who run for public office. That would change under SB 160, which would remove a prohibition that has been in the Georgia code for more than 30 years.

The sponsors of the bill claim that it's all about "fairness." Other corporations can make campaign contributions through political action committees, they say, so it's only fair to "level the playing field" and allow utilities to do the same.

Giving the utilities the go-ahead to contribute directly to political candidates is about as fair as giving brass knuckles to a mugger. It's about as fair as lining up the Green Bay Packers against the Meadowcreek High junior varsity and allowing the Packers to put 13 players at a time on the football field.

"The utilities are already, literally, in bed with our legislators," said Angela Speir, who served a term on the PSC and now heads the consumer organization Georgia Watch. She was referring to the events of a few years ago when House Speaker Glenn Richardson got booted as speaker for having an affair with an Atlanta Gas Light lobbyist.

"This bill, if it passes, would strongly tilt the scale in favor of the powerful special interests," Speir said. "The deck's already stacked against the little guy. The utilities already have a very powerful presence regarding our state policy and if this happens they'll have even greater influence. The little guy won't have a chance."

Georgia Power currently has the political clout to get anything it wants. If the company asks for a rate hike, it knows in advance that at least four and probably all five members of the PSC will vote to approve that increase.

If Georgia Power thinks the PSC isn't acting quickly enough to give it what it wants, the utility will simply ask the General Assembly to adopt legislation that bypasses the PSC.

This happened in 2009 with the introduction of SB 31, a bill that provided Georgia Power with a $1.6 billion windfall by allowing the utility to start charging its customers for nuclear generation plants that haven't even been built yet and won't start operating until 2017 or later. Georgia Power flooded the capitol with dozens of lobbyists to get the bill passed and Gov. Sonny Perdue enthusiastically signed it into law.

It's entirely fitting that the author of SB 31 is the same person who is sponsoring the current SB 160: Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. The Waffle House executive evidently wants to make sure that utility customers continue to be scattered, smothered and covered with rate increases.

SB 160, if it should become law, would complete the task of surrendering state government to the control of the utilities. It would be blatantly unfair to those homeowners and small business people who don't have the financial resources or the political influence of a Georgia Power or an Atlanta Gas Light.

It won't surprise me at all if the House and Senate adopt it.

Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays.