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File photo / Cooling towers at Plant Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant are shown in Waynesboro, Ga.

A contentious bill that was killed in the final moment's of last year's legislative session passed narrowly in the Georgia House this week.

The bill would allow Dalton Utilities to issue bonds for the expansion of electric power without voter approval on a referendum. Critics of the bill have said it would strip Dalton electric customers of the ability to vote before the company makes decisions that may affect their power rates. Others have said the utility should have held multiple public meetings before it pushed the change.

The measure passed with the minimum amount of votes required — 91 representatives voted in favor and 75 against. A motion to reconsider on Wednesday failed.

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, and state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, have pushed the legislation in the capitol the last two sessions and it seems as though the third time was the charm. Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, also signed on as a sponsor.

The bill will now go to Gov. Brian Kemp's desk for his signature.

The bill would ease Dalton Utilities' path to big loans, helping the company cover its costs for the two additional nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle, where the cost of building the new units has soared to more than $25 billion.

One of the main reasons Dalton Utilities pushed for the bill was because of the company's 1.6% ownership stake in the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion.

Dalton Utilities CEO Tom Bundros said he feared a recession could hurt the city's vibrant carpet industry, which accounts for about 70% of the utility's revenue. An economic downturn could hurt the companies, which could hurt Dalton Utilities, putting it in a squeeze to pay the growing Plant Vogtle debt.

In August, the board at Dalton Utilities passed a resolution supporting the idea of borrowing up to $100 million to fund scheduled maintenance and improvement of its electrical generation, transmission and distribution systems, the Daily Citizen-News reported.

Lawmakers who support the bill argue the bill puts the city on the same footing as members of the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia, which does not need voter approval to issue bonds.

In the last hours of the 2019 session, State Rep. Jason Ridley, R-Chatsworth, won a power struggle over Carpenter and Payne by arguing the legislation stripped power from the utility's customers.

Ridley called for a second vote on the bill after it had passed a first time. As lawmakers reconsidered, Ridley convinced enough of them to switch sides, sinking the bill for the second time in two years.

When it failed last year, Carpenter said the issue became less about policy and more about personalities.

Ridley voted against the bill again this session but he and other lawmakers couldn't kill it for the third time after Dalton Utilities hired six lobbyists, including House Speaker David Ralston's son.

In February before the coronavirus forced the legislature to temporarily close up shop, Carpenter said the bill had a great chance of becoming law after educating the public on what the bill would do for the community and one of its most prominent companies.

Carpenter said the Dalton City Council voted unanimously to support the legislation.

He also said he understood the bill would govern a pretty "isolated situation" and only affects power customers in parts of Northwest Georgia. That didn't deter some lawmakers from across the state to object to the bill's principles on the House floor this week.

Carpenter argued on the floor Tuesday the bill will offer Dalton Utilities the flexibility to compete for economic development projects and "react for such things as this COVID pandemic that we saw a substantial decrease in industries use of our utilities."

Ed Painter, former chairman of the 14th Congressional District Republican Party, said he and other local officials have had trouble with how the bill was introduced three years ago.

"I'm concerned Dalton Utilities has been less than transparent in their motives for this," Painter said. "I also don't like the general principle of removing voters from the mix."

Painter said the bill probably wouldn't have been as controversial as it turned out to be if Dalton Utilities and its backers would have handled the roll out differently.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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