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Georgia House District 6 representative Jason Ridley listens during the program at the Murray County Senior Center in Chatsworth. The Murray County Republican Party hosted a meet and greet for candidates running for the District 5 Georgia House Seat on December 20, 2018. The seat was left empty with the death of longtime house member John Meadows.

State Rep. Jason Ridley won a power struggle in the closing hours of Georgia's legislative session Tuesday.

The House approved a bill that would have allowed Dalton Utilities to issue revenue bonds more easily. But Ridley, R-Chatsworth, said the legislation stripped power from the utility's customers. He called for a second vote. A majority of representatives agreed. And as they reconsidered, Ridley convinced enough lawmakers to switch sides, sinking the bill for the second time in two years.

Who flipped?

The following people voted no the second time after initially voting yes:

Rep. James Beverly, D-Macon

Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert

Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown

Rep. Marie Metze, D-Atlanta

Rep. Butch Parrish, R-Swainsboro

Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell

Rep. Terry Rogers, R-Clarkesville

Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta

Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville

 

If the legislation passed, Dalton Utilities could have issued bonds for the expansion of electric power without voter approval on a referendum. But Ridley said the utility should have held multiple public meetings before it pushed the change.

"[People are] sick and tired of these companies coming in here and trying to force their hands and shove things down their throats," Ridley told the Times Free Press on Wednesday morning. "That's the people that elected me, and that's the people I'm going to stick up for."

Who didn’t show?

The following people didn’t vote the second time after initially voting yes:

Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-South Fulton

Rep. Patty Bentley, D-Butler

Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah

Rep. Mable Thomas, D-Atlanta

State Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, and state Sen. Chuck Payne, R-Dalton, have pushed the legislation in the capitol the last two sessions. They 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 internal emails last year, Dalton Utilities CEO Tom Bundros wrote that he pushed the legislation because of the utility's 1.6 percent ownership stake in the Plant Vogtle nuclear plant expansion. He told the Times Free Press earlier this year that the utility owes $100 million on the project, which he said it can cover with its annual revenue.

In the emails last year, he wrote that he feared a recession could hurt the city's vibrant carpet industry, which accounts for about 70 percent 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 Plant Vogtle debt.

"Dalton Utilities is very disappointed in the outcome of this important legislative measure to Dalton Utilities and our customers," Bundros wrote in a statement Wednesday, adding the bill "got caught up in politics, not policy."

Carpenter, meanwhile, said he was frustrated that Ridley swayed so many representatives. Carpenter pointed out that he represents about 90 percent of Dalton Utilities customers.

"Unfortunately sometimes issues at the Capitol become less about policy and more about personalities," he told the Times Free Press in a text message on Wednesday. "I thought we addressed the personal concerns, but I guess it gives us something to work on next year. [Dalton Utilities] is too important for [Northwest Georgia] and manufacturing to simply allow personal concerns to override good public policy."

In addition to the process, Ridley is also concerned about the viability of the Plant Vogtle project. Originally slated to cost $14 billion, the latest bill put the total cost at $26 billion. Georgia Power is supposed to present the next update on the project to the state's Public Service Commission in August.

"I think that's everybody's concern," Ridley said. "Every time you turn around, it's another $1 billion increase."

Ridley objected to the bill soon after he heard about it last year, saying the Dalton city council did not know about the proposal until he alerted its members. In internal emails last year, Bundros asked lobbyists and members of the utility board to try to sway Ridley to their side. That didn't work. Later, Ridley said Bundros tried to sway Murray County Commissioner Greg Hogan and Chatsworth Water Works Commission General Manager Steve Smith.

According to Ridley, Bundros told the local elected officials that Dalton Utilities would not be able to expand OptiLink fiber optic cable to Murray County government buildings unless Ridley changed his tune. He felt this was a threat.

Asked about this, Smith declined to comment, besides saying, "I'm trying to be politically correct here. We do business with Dalton Utilities. I can't really afford to get on the bad side there, or the political side."

Said Hogan: "We had an agreement with Dalton Utilities to run OptiLink over here to our government buildings. It got delayed for some reason. But that's all I'd rather say."

Bundros said he did not threaten Ridley or the Murray County government officials. He said he simply tried to lobby them. He pointed out that the utility did eventually run high-speed internet to government buildings last year, "which has resulted in thousands of dollars [in] savings to Murray County."

The bill previously passed the Senate. Before Ridley's objection Tuesday night, the House voted to approve the bill, 91-69. A bill must receive at least 91 votes to pass the state House. After Ridley asked for reconsideration, the bill failed, with 84 representatives voting for it and 74 voting against it.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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