Utility lobbyists spend big to feed Georgia utility regulators

The cooling towers for Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 rise above the construction sites. GEORGIA POWER

The cooling towers for Plant Vogtle reactors 3 and 4 rise above the construction sites. GEORGIA POWER

Georgia’s Public Service Commissioners regulate utilities, and last month, utility lobbyists made sure the elected officials were well fed at a conference at the Lake Oconee Ritz-Carlton.

According to recently filed reports, eight lobbyists spent almost $7,700 on members and staff for a single dinner on June 12 at the Southeastern Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners conference.

That included lobbyists for Atlanta Gas Light, Gas South, AT&T, the Georgia Cable Association, and two lobbyists for Georgia Power.

The dinner came a few days after the PSC decided to put on hold a proposal by one of its members to ask Georgia Power to stop collecting a surcharge to finance the company's troubled Plant Vogtle nuclear expansion.

Commissioner Lauren "Bubba" McDonald wants to halt the surcharge, which adds about $100 a year to the typical residential bill, after the recent bankruptcy of a key contractor clouded the project's future. But other members of the five-person commission decided to delay a vote on the issue, saying they wanted to first find out from the state's attorney general if such a move was legal.

Close ties between regulators and the regulated aren't unheard of in Georgia. Insurance commissioners, for instance, have long collected much of their campaign money from the insurance industry they regulate.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2013 that a SCANA Energy lobbyist served as campaign treasurer for two PSC members seeking re-election the next year.

One PSC member asked a gas company lobbyist in 2012 to help arrange for his granddaughter to sing the national anthem at a Braves game. The lobbyist not only obliged but also bought his ticket to the game. For years, industry lobbyists would give PSC members gifts around Christmastime, from cookies and wine to smoked hams.

And for years, utility lobbyists have paid for meals for at least some PSC members attending conferences.