Watch out for 'Vote For Me' bills

Elections, natural gas and budget crunch mark 2002 Legislative session

At last count there were three study committees and 19 bills on natural gas deregulation in the Georgia General Assembly. Beginning Jan. 14, the first day of the 2002 legislative session, those numbers will rise every week.

Natural gas deregulation is the hot issue of the day. Lawmakers and members of the Public Service Commission have to run for re-election this year, so it's imperative that they appear to be looking after their constituents. One of the easiest ways to give that impression these days is through natural gas legislation that claims to fix the state's bungled natural gas market.

Just last week, Sen. David Scott, D-Atlanta, held a press conference at the Capitol to trumpet that he's introducing the "Natural Gas Consumer Protection Act" (as opposed to the Natural Gas Customers Bill of Rights, or the Consumer Protection Act for Natural Gas Customers).

"Every [legislator] will have a bill to cut gas prices because everybody is outraged by it," says one gas industry lobbyist.

Even Gov. Roy Barnes is expected to get in on the natural gas game. After all, he's got to run for office again too. His bill, insiders say, will be ready by the end of the first week of the session, but won't be introduced until later. It'll establish a provider of last resort — called "POLERS" by those hip, natural gas industry insiders — that would keep the gas turned on for the thousands of Georgians who haven't or couldn't pay their gas bills.

Barnes' bill also will likely call for the regulation of a single gas provider. That means that one gas seller, probably Atlanta Gas Light, would be regulated by the PSC while the rest of the marketers would continue operating as they do now.

Whether that part of the bill remains in the final version is a question. Even though natural gas deregulation is a popular issue, it is also a contentious one for the outfits that have spent millions of dollars to enter the Georgia gas market, only to accumulate massive debt from unpaid gas bills.

One natural gas marketer lobbyist, who wanted to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, says that allowing one regulated gas seller into the deregulated market "would trigger several lawsuits, definitely. And it would lead to one to three marketers, at least, leaving the Georgia natural gas market. That's one of the big reasons they came here, because there wasn't a regulated entity that sold gas."

Scott's bill also would establish a provider of last resort. Did we mention that Scott is running for Congress in Georgia's 13th District this year?

By coming out almost a whole week before the start of the Legislative session, Scott was able to get the media's attention before every lawmaker and their intern drop an oh-so helpful natural gas bill. The longer folks wait to get on the bandwagon, the harder it'll be to get the media's, and more importantly the voters', attentions.

The state's budget will take up more time and cause more headaches than any other issue this session even though Georgia is in an enviable position compared to our neighbors. Thanks to Barnes' foresight, about which he's isn't the least shy to discuss, we have a $900 million surplus, but to be on the safe side he asked every state department to cut their budget by 2.5 percent last fall. This session, the General Assembly will be wrestling with budget cuts of 6 percent and more.

The bickering and finger pointing will come when legislators defend programs that help their constituents and criticize programs that are supposed to help somebody else's constituents.

One of the more interesting shouting matches will focus on state School Superintendent and Republican gubernatorial candidate Linda Schrenko's request to give teachers a 10 percent pay raise. That decision will ultimately fall to Barnes, who alienated teachers when he stripped them of their job protection two years ago. The governor's spokeswoman says Barnes is still considering pay raises for teachers.

Likewise, the city of Atlanta delegation will ask the state to help out with the $90 million shortfall Mayor Shirley Franklin discovered shortly after her inauguration.

Rep. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta, Franklin's transition team leader, says the city hasn't come up with a dollar figure yet, but will request money for homeland security, specifically for police salaries and protecting the city's drinking water supply. Reed points out that the state of Maryland helped fund the city of Baltimore's notable homeland security programs.

"The airport, the city's water and sewer system, Philips Arena during the sporting events — those are some examples where the city has to go to extraordinary measures to secure those places [and] those are some examples of putting an extraordinary strain on what is already a financially stretched city," Reed says.

The problem Reed, Franklin and the rest of the Atlanta delegation will encounter is that the state has little money to spend on its own programs. And even if the state was flush with cash, there are plenty of rural lawmakers who'd rather burn the money than give it to the city of Atlanta.

Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, has said for more than a year that the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority needs to consolidate regional transportation, including MARTA, under one roof. That concept is finally gaining momentum, and a bill that seeks to put Atlanta's transit system under the control of GRTA will likely be introduced, Brooks says. Another member of the Atlanta delegation who wished to remain nameless says the real plan goes like this: Barnes will wait another year until he's re-elected to put MARTA under GRTA, and then pay the three governments that built MARTA — Atlanta, Fulton County and DeKalb County — $300 million for the capital they put into the transit system.

Environmentally, it's going to be another mixed year.

The good news is that funding for the clean up of hazardous waste sites in Georgia will be increased and renewed (it was set to sunset this year).

There are still close to 50 sites in Georgia listed on the hazardous waste inventory list. But at the tail end of last year, a study committee recommended upping the fees that waste handlers pay into the cleanup fund.

Solid waste fees will increase from 50 cents per ton to 65 cents per ton, and go up again in 2008 to 75 cents per ton, according to a bill drafted by the state Environmental Protection Division.

Hazardous waste fees will go up 15 percent, but hazardous waste that is recycled will be exempted from any fees. We'll also see a bill supported by EPD that will use financial incentives to encourage the cleanup and re-development of brownfield sites, such as Atlantic Station.

At least, that's the plan now. The bad news is that a group of industrial lawyers and lobbyists will try to convince lawmakers to lower EPD's clean up standards for hazardous waste sites, thereby making it less expensive to scrub the locations, and obviously making the hazardous sites less clean.

Other things: As CL's cover story last week reported, Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, is pushing a bill that would rein in predatory lenders. Reining in lenders who gouge, cheat and rip off consumers will be doggedly fought by the banking industry, which, not so incidentally, is one of the biggest contributors to re-election campaigns.

The Attorney General's Office will ask for legislation to crack down on identity fraud and identity theft.

Brooks is introducing legislation that would allow black police officers who were wrongly prohibited from participating in the state's pension program to receive full benefits.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce will seek to tax credits for businesses that allow employees to telework from home, and members of the Atlanta delegation will ask for a state income tax break for Georgia's 70,000 police officers and firefighters, but because of the recession and state budget crunch, any bill that calls for reducing the state's income from taxes stands little chance of passing.


Helpful links:

Follow campaign contributions at www.sos.state.ga.us/elections/ disclosure.htm

Follow bills, get lawmaker profiles and other Legislative information at www.ganet.org/services/newleg/.