Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Members of Georgia’s TEA Parties were focused on Wisconsin last week, holding rallies in solidarity of the efforts to end collective bargaining for various mid-western states’ employees unions at the Georgia Capitol. With all respect to Georgia’s organizers, I’d suggest it is time to focus their efforts back home, here in Georgia. I would suggest they start with SB 160 and its primary sponsor, Senator Don Balfour (R-Snellville).
It’s difficult for me to type (R-Snellville) when I type Senator Balfour’s name, because when I see his name, I think (R-Georgia Power). Two years ago, Balfour was the primary sponsor of SB 31, a bill that bypassed the Georgia Public Service Commission with mandated rate increases allowing for Georgia Power to build two additional nuclear reactors at Plant Votgle. Please let me state for the record that I am pro-nuclear power, and support new reactors at Votgle. The way these are being paid for, however, is an abomination to Georgia citizens, especially Georgia Power consumers.
SB 31, custom written for Georgia Power, allows the utility to bill consumers for “financing costs” of the two plants beginning this year (coincidentally, after the most recent election – no need to let voters see an ugly legislature mandated rate hike just before they vote). Though the new reactors will not be productive before 2016 at the earliest, Georgia Power customers will begin paying for the reactors now. Except, Balfour exempted large commercial users from the rate increase. Thus the burden will fall on small businesses and residential customers to pay this portion of construction costs.
To make matters worse, “financing costs” includes a legally mandated “return on investment” or as most of us would call it, “profit”, to the tune of about one billion dollars. Don Balfour and the rest of Georgia’s legislature made sure that you and I, but not large businesses, give Georgia Power – a large private company – a $1 billion advance profit on a plant that will not generate power for at least five more years.
For Georgia Power to generate this kind of legislation, they invested heavily in the legislature, and deployed an armada of over 70 lobbyists – roughly one for every three legislators – to ensure the bill passed.
This year, Balfour is back sponsoring SB 160, a bill that would allow regulated utilities to make direct campaign contributions to Georgia political candidates, with the exception of the Public Service Commission. Apparently, having to deploy over 70 lobbyists is inefficient, and Balfour would like to make it easier to for the utilities to come straight to them bearing cash.
His rationale is rooted in a recent US Supreme Court decision which recognizes a corporation as a person, and as such, has the right to make campaign contributions. The Citizens United case struck down a significant portion of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law just over a year ago, and Balfour told the AJC that Georgia’s current law is “blatantly unconstitutional”, given that the Supreme Court has ruled corporate political donations are protected speech.
As always, when I see most politicians referencing the Constitution, I assume it is a matter of convenience to support their position de jour. And thus, I will offer that the problem with Balfour’s argument is within the bill itself.
SB 160, as currently written, maintains the existing exemption from regulated utilities making donations to the Public Service Commission campaigns for those who will ultimately regulate them. In doing so, Balfour implicitly acknowledges that there are limits to the political free speech as granted in the Citizens United decision.
Assuming there are valid reasons to restrict government regulated monopolies from donating to those who regulate them, there is reason to believe these limitations can extend to legislators as well, given that Balfour proved with the previous SB 31 bill that the legislature can bypass the PSC whenever they are so inclined, especially 70 lobbyists or a pile of direct campaign contributions encourage them to do so.
And thus, the TEA Party members who focused like a laser on Washington and their bad habits in the 2010 election need to get busy looking at our state legislature for 2012. Whether it’s a “tax”, a “fee”, or a mandated rate increase that hits small businesses and residents but exempts large corporations who can afford lobbyists, the folks at the gold dome have proven time and time again they have a way of getting into our wallets. Yet if the focus remains on Washington, the rules back home will continue to be changed in favor of the big guys, with us little people footing the bill.