Fresh Meat vs. Goliath Under The Gold Dome

Most freshman legislators vote along party lines, introduce populist legislation, and avoid controversy at all costs.

But first-term Rep. Brian Thomas, a Democrat from Lilburn, of all places, jumped headfirst into the biggest environmental fight of the 2005 session. Thomas, an archeologist, went head to head with Georgia Power over one of the power company's top legislative priorities - and he won.

The fight centered on what's called the stay rule, which forces companies to halt large construction projects long enough for a judge to rule on whether the project meets state environmental standards.

Power companies and other big industries have been trying to get rid of the stay rule since 2001, when Duke Energy Corp. sued the state Department of Natural Resources for halting construction of a natural gas power plant in White County. Duke Energy lost the case in 2003. That same year, Georgia Power lobbied to do away with the stay rule, and failed.

In February, Sen. Ross Tolleson, R-Perry, introduced - to the state's first GOP-run session in 130 years - legislation to erase the stay rule. Without the rule, companies would be able to build stinky or polluting projects such as landfills, hog farms and power plants - even if a judge were to later rule the projects don't meet state environmental regulations.

Tolleson's bill passed the Senate 32-20 on March 11; the next day it landed before the House Natural Resources Committee, of which Thomas is a member.

"Georgia Power was really, really backing this bill," Thomas says. "And I was just trying to make sure there were protections in this bill for people and for the state's resources."

While Thomas worked the phones and wrote counterpoints to convince fellow lawmakers to vote against the bill, Georgia Power lobbyists lobbied, wined and dined them. Lobbyists Scott Draper and Steve Allen spent $8,554 on dinners, lunches, and receptions for lawmakers in January and February, according to the State Ethics Commission.

In the end, Thomas, working with environmental lawyers and lobbyists, was able to win the favor of the state House. The final version of the bill mandates that the stay rule remain in place for 90 days after an appeal is filed. And judges can extend the stay rule for an additional 60 days if the appeal process is still underway.

"Obviously it would be better if the stay rule remained the way it was prior to this bill," Thomas says. "But we were able to repair this bill well enough so that everybody can live with it."??

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