Lawmakers agree to let utility with Vogtle stake borrow without voter OK

    A bill that proposes to allow a Dalton public utility take on more debt without voter input nearly cleared the Legislature Tuesday before it was reeled back for reconsideration. Dalton Utility owns 1.6% of the troubled Plant Vogtle expansion project, which is already billions over budget and years behind schedule. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

    Updated 8 a.m. Thursday

    A controversial measure that frees a north Georgia municipal utility with a stake in the expansion of Plant Vogtle from holding a public vote before borrowing money for electricity projects is on its way to the governor’s desk.

    The bill drew opposition from lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who are wary of stripping Dalton voters of a say before Dalton Utilities can take on more debt. The public utility owns 1.6% of the troubled Plant Vogtle project, which is already billions over budget and years behind schedule.

    The bill, first proposed three years ago, failed dramatically last year on the House floor, but it passed Tuesday with few votes to spare. The vote was 91 to 75, with House Speaker David Ralston prodding lawmakers to vote who had not.

    The bill squeaked out of the House Tuesday and a push for a new vote Wednesday failed, allowing Tuesday’s narrow victory to stand.

    The utility argued the change would give them more flexibility and put them on a level playing field with cities that long ago joined the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia and who do not have to ask their voters before issuing revenue bonds. Dalton Utilities have tried to assure lawmakers the bill was unrelated to its commitment to Plant Vogtle.

    The utility had fought hard for the bill, hiring six lobbyists, including the speaker’s son, to make the case under the Gold Dome.

    “A ‘yes’ vote means, ironically, that you are voting to take away somebody else’s right to vote,” Rep. Beth Moore, a Peachtree Corners Democrat, said to her colleagues.

    Moore said she opposed the bill even though the change does not directly affect her district just south of Atlanta.

    “If there was ever a bill in this House that took away the right to vote from the people of Augusta, Georgia, of Blue Ridge, Georgia, of Brunswick, Georgia, I would vote ‘no’ on that bill,” Moore said.

    Moore called it a straw man argument to claim environmentalists were opposing the measure because of Plant Vogtle. “That ship has sailed,” she said, although she did call it a “bad investment” by Dalton Utilities board members. “Plant Vogtle is going to come online no matter what.”

    Rep. Kasey Carpenter, a Dalton Republican, overcame vocal opposition from other north Georgia lawmakers, like Chatsworth Republican Jason Ridley, that helped doom the bill in the past. Ridley voted against the bill Tuesday but did not rail against it Tuesday.

    “I know my city, I know my voters and they are not against this bill,” Carpenter said. “This is about allowing my utility the flexibility to compete for large electrical projects. We’ve had a company come in for $12 million worth of transmission growth. We have to cash flow that out of pocket, and that’s unacceptable in this economic environment.”

    Many lawmakers are clearly still unconvinced.

    “Would it be perhaps a good idea that every decade or two or three that Georgia Power loses a vote in the interest of the people’s right to vote in Georgia?” Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-time Decatur Democrat, asked Carpenter. Georgia Power is the main backer of Plant Vogtle.

    Jill Nolin
    Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.