A 2016 file photo of the Plant Vogtle nuclear construction Johnny Edwards, jedwards@ajc.com Johnny Edwards/jedwards@ajc.com
Photo: Johnny Edwards/jedwards@ajc.com
Photo: Johnny Edwards/jedwards@ajc.com

The Jolt: ‘Election’ campaign erupts ahead of Plant Vogtle nuke votes

We figured that election season would see the unfinished construction of two new nuclear reactors become an issue. But not like this.

Full-page ads, which ran in newspapers in Marietta and Newnan on Wednesday, referred to Georgia Power’s effort to complete the Plant Vogtle project as “one of the most expensive and mismanaged construction projects in history.”

On I-75, a digital billboard began flashing “Don’t pay for a $30 billion mistake.”

And from the state Capitol, a letter from 22 state lawmakers, including some of the Legislature’s most influential GOP leaders, on Wednesday flew to the headquarters of Georgia Power, Oglethorpe Power, and the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia. The three entities are the primary owners of the Vogtle project.

The lawmakers recited the history. After Westinghouse Electric went bankrupt in 2017, Southern Nuclear – “an unregulated subsidiary of Southern Company” – took over the last nuclear construction project in the U.S. Eight months after “the last, highest budget” was approved by the state Public Service Commission, another 2.3 billion in cost overruns was announced. From the letter:

“Southern Company pledged that its shareholders would absorb Georgia Power’s share of the increase. This puts a disproportionate cost burden on EMC and city utility customers – our local utilities don’t have the luxury of shareholders to absorb these additional costs and will have to increase rates even higher. This approach is unfair and uncompetitive.”

The lawmakers are demanding “a cost cap…that protects all Georgia electric ratepayers from this and future overruns.”

This sudden campaign isn’t aimed at Nov. 6, but at Sept. 24. The new cost overruns announced this summer triggered a clause in the project’s ownership agreement. Ninety percent must agree to move forward, or the effort is abandoned. The deadline is four days away. MEAG’s board could vote as early as today.

The campaign, in the form of billboards and newspaper ads, is being bankrolled by JEA, the utility owned by the city of Jacksonville, Fla. JEA signed a purchase-power agreement with MEAG in 2008 that obliged JEA to shoulder some of the costs of the nuclear project. It now wants out. MEAG and JEA are separately suing one another over the issue. JEA has also asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene.

Early this year, the assumption was that the over-budget, behind-schedule reactor construction would become a Democratic talking point heading to November – which has not been the case. Democratic candidates for the two PSC seats on the November ballot have been restrained in their criticisms, in large part because of the 5,000-plus union workers on the site.

All but one of the two state lawmakers signing the Sept. 19 letter mentioned above are Republican, and include: House Speaker pro tem Jan Jones, R-Milton; Senate President pro tem Butch Miller, R-Gainesville; House Ways and Means Chairman Jay Powell, R- Camilla; House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, R-Auburn; Senate Chief Deputy Whip John Albers, R-Roswell; and Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome.

In this version of the letter sent to us, the name of state Rep. Terry Rogers was also attached, identifying him as “governor’s floor leader.” But we’re told that a corrected version quickly followed. Rogers’ name disappeared, and that of state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, was substituted. These lines from the Florida Times-Union could explain why:

Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal asked the co-owners to move forward building the nuclear reactors despite the challenges, citing the significant economic impact the construction project has for the state.

“I am counting on the project co-owners to follow through on the commitments you made to the citizens of Georgia, ratepayers, and myself,” Deal wrote Tuesday to Georgia Power Company, the private utility that owns the largest share of Vogtle.

Scroll through the lawmakers’ letter below:

The letter is somewhat ironic, given that in 2009, it was the Legislature that went over the heads of PSC members and passed legislation that allowed Georgia Power to require ratepayers to shoulder, in advance, some of the financing costs of the project.

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In Wednesday’s Jolt, we told you of Democrat Steve Smith’s failed attempt to buy time on a digital billboard to boost his Forsyth County campaign for the vacated state Senate seat of Michael Williams. He’s running against Greg Dolezal. In a post on DailyKos, Smith said he traced his rejection to the fact that the billboard was owned by the son of Ralph Hudgens, the Republican state insurance commissioner. That afternoon, we received a note from Morgan Hudgens:

“This article is incorrect. I rejected this ad due to “conflict.” Conflict means I already have someone in that field buying ads, and I cannot accept another ad from a competitor. I did not accept Greg’s ad when Brian Tam was running for that seat, because of conflict.

“When Greg won, he reached out to me and asked if he could now advertise, and I said sure. Then when Steve’s ad came across BLIP, I had to reject it due to conflict with Greg. No one ever said that we don’t allow Democrats to advertise. Perfect example of Steve, and all the commenters on The Daily KOS, pushing more fake news. I just might advertise for him now, but he won’t like what I am inclined to post.”

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Charlie Bailey, the Democratic candidate for attorney general running against Republican incumbent Chris Carr is out with a four-minute video introduction of himself on social video. It emphasizes his credentials as a criminal prosecutor, a not-so-subtle dig at Carr’s lack of courtroom experience. It also includes an endorsement from Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley, who is listed as a supporter in Carr’s literature.

“To be a sheriff, I have to understand law enforcement,” Jolley says in the video. “For you to be the attorney general, I believe you ought to understand what it takes to prosecute someone in the criminal justice system.” Watch it here:

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U.S. Sen. David Perdue got some love this morning from Donald Trump via Twitter. The president caught Georgia’s junior Republican senator on “Fox & Friends” this morning, praising Trump and slamming Democrats for blocking funding for the border wall in government spending negotiations.

That was one reason why senators this week passed an $855 billion bill that put funding for the Department of Homeland Security and several other agencies on autopilot until after the midterm elections.

Perdue was one of just seven senators to oppose the measure. On Tuesday, the senator told us there was still time for the parties to iron out their differences on the border wall ahead of the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year.

The president is considered a wild card as congressional leaders seek to avoid a shutdown showdown ahead of the midterms, which many see as politically risky.

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Earlier this week, Brian Kemp’s Republican campaign for governor pounced on the quasi-endorsement that the Metro Atlanta chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America bestowed on Stacey Abrams

But there is another side to this coin. Abrams could say the same about some of the fringe groups backing his bid.

Southern Revivalism, which advocates for Southern secession, posted a lengthy racist post this month accusing Abrams of being a “Yankee-supported Black marxist that hates the South” - and plenty more vile stuff

Other white supremacist groups, including Stormfront, have posted encouraging words about Kemp’s campaign. And members of the Nationalist Liberty Union, which aims to “unify America as a Euro-centric Christian nation,” waved Kemp signs in Augusta to protest an appearance by an Abrams surrogate

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The decision by Stacey Abrams to avoid a vote on a sex offender crackdown has quickly made its way into a Georgia GOP attack ad that labels her “too extreme” for Georgia. 

Abrams said through a spokeswoman that she opposed the legislation because it limited the discretion of judges. Watch the ad here and read the backstory here. 

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