Despite a state law that bars them from making direct campaign contributions, public utilities in Georgia are not exactly voiceless. At the Public Service Commission, at the General Assembly and in the governor’s office, they wield enormous influence and pretty much get whatever they want.
In 2009, for example, when Georgia Power demanded the right to start charging ratepayers for nuclear power plants years before those plants start producing electricity, the company put more than 70 registered lobbyists on its payroll to plead its cause at the General Assembly. Sure enough, despite protests from experts at the PSC and elsewhere who warned it was a bad deal, the company got what it wanted.
As a result, you’re now paying higher electricity rates today for plants that won’t provide you with a kilowatt of electricity until 2017, and if that investment goes sour, you — not the company — will be on the hook to repay it.
The man who sponsored that bill, state Sen. Don Balfour of Gwinnett County, is now back with another bill. If enacted into law, Senate Bill 160 would for the first time in decades allow regulated utilities to make direct political contributions in all state races except for the PSC. (Employees and contractors of regulated utilities already have that right.)
As AJC reporter Margaret Newkirk noted last week:
“In 2010, Georgia Power employees gave $29,315 to state campaigns, records show. The Troutman Sanders law firm, which represents Georgia Power and many other companies, gave $98,500.
In neighboring Alabama, where state law allows utility-led PACs to donate, Alabama Power, Georgia Power’s sister company, gave $877,119 to state campaigns in 2010.”
(For the record, Georgia Power says it is neutral on Balfour’s legislation.)
According to Balfour, current Georgia law barring such donations by regulated utilities is “blatantly unconstitutional” in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that gave corporations more freedom to influence campaigns.
However, Balfour’s claim is itself blatantly incorrect. If our state law were so clearly unconstitutional, it would have been challenged by now and thrown out. Instead, a coalition calling itself “Georgia Fair Speech Coalition” is trying to enact the change legislatively.
There’s a good reason for that. In its controversial Citizens United decision, the U.S. Supreme Court did rule that corporations could not be barred from spending their own money to express their own political opinions through so-called “independent expenditures”. However, the ruling said nothing about campaign finance laws that limit or forbid corporate contributions to political candidates.
More directly, Citizens United did not address the issue of campaign donations by state-regulated monopolies. After all, these are not private corporations subject to the discipline of the marketplace. Their only discipline comes from state officials.
State officials determine how much profit those companies can make; they dictate what those companies can charge their customers. Their customers, in turn, have no legal choice but to pay the rate they are charged. In Georgia Power’s case, for example, its customers are being forced to finance nuclear plants they may never use through a law that was passed by legislators and signed by the governor.
Changing the law to give regulated utilities even more influence over those same elected officials is a terrible idea.
– Jay Bookman