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Ga. Power lobbyists push hard on nuke charges

ATLANTA (AP) - The hallway outside the chamber of the Georgia Senate was thick with lobbyists as lawmakers voted recently on legislation allowing Georgia Power to charge ratepayers early for interest charges in a multi-billion-dollar nuclear expansion.

Lobbyists are a mainstay under the gold dome. But Georgia Power's full court press this year has raised eyebrows, even among some legislative veterans. In recent weeks, the powerful utility has hired a pricey fleet of the Capitol's most sought-after lobbyists. The minimum price tag for the hired help is $50,000, according to lobbying registration documents. Additionally, Georgia Power's chief executive officer, Michael Garrett, registered with state ethics officials this month to officially lobby on the bill.

"It's been the lobbyist employment act of 2009," said state Sen. Steve Thompson, a Marietta Democrat who voted against it.

At stake is legislation that would effectively boost electric rates for thousands of Georgia Power customers beginning in 2011. The bill allows Georgia Power to begin collecting interest costs for its nuclear expansion at Plant Vogtle six years before the new nuclear reactors are set to be completed.

Critics have blasted the measure as a raw deal for consumers being asked to the foot the bill for the reactors long before they'll see any benefit from them.

Supporters say it will slash some $300 million off the project's estimated $14 billion total price tag, saving consumers money in the long run. Either way electric bills will go up, they argue.

The bill passed the state Senate 38-16. It cleared a key subcommittee in the House on Friday by voice vote.

In the days before the Senate vote, five outside lobbyists registered to work on behalf of Georgia Power at a minimum cost to the utility of $50,000. Pete Robinson, Arthur "Skin" Edge, Ernie Jones, Joe Tanner and Rob Willis each reported that they would be paid a minimum of $10,000 for their work on behalf of Georgia Power. Under state disclosure requirements lobbyists do not have to be more specific about their pay scale. The five lobbyists supplement three Georgia Power in-house lobbyists - employed full time by the company - at the state Capitol. A fourth in-house lobbyist joined that team this month.

Lawmakers said they've felt the pressure.

State Sen. David Shafer, a Republican from Duluth, labeled the utility's lobbying efforts "above average," even by state Capitol standards. Shafer is the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee that approved the bill.

And Neill Herring, a veteran Sierra Club lobbyist who opposes the bill, said it's the most heavily-pushed measures he's seen in his three decades under the gold dome.

"It's unprecedented," Herring said. "Just the raw number of folks they have."

But state Sen. Don Balfour, the bill's sponsor, disputed that the bill is in a class by itself.

"I would totally disagree," Balfour, a Snellville Republican, said. "In my 18 years in the Senate I have seen bills with far more aggressive lobbying."

A spokeswoman for Georgia Power said the utility was pushing the bill hard because it's good for consumers.

"We think that this bill is really important to the state's energy future," Christy Heiser said. "We take very seriously the need to do everything we can to diversify our fuel mix."

Besides the lobbying drive, the company has also been lavishing meals and sports tickets on lawmakers in recent months, according to state lobbying disclosure reports.

In January alone, Georgia Power spent $497 on a dinner for House Republican leadership, $996 on a lunch for House Democrats and $565 for the executive committee of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus. And the utility coughed up $520 worth of hockey tickets for House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter. Burkhalter wrote an op-ed piece in October calling on Georgia officials to cut the red tape to build nuclear facilities.

Georgia Power lobbyists Steve Allen and Scott Draper were among the most generous Georgia lobbyists in 2009. Together the pair doled out more than $14,000 in meals, sports tickets and other freebies to legislators, according to disclosure reports.

The utility already has friends in high places. Gov. Sonny Perdue's chief of staff, Ed Holcombe, had a 39-year career at Georgia Power where he worked as the company's chief lobbyist.

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S.B. 31: www.legis.ga.gov