It’s a tradition for political columnists to close out the year by picking their list of winners and losers for the 12-month period that just ended.
These winners and losers are typically defined by what they did to gain or lose political power. I modified that concept to decide who would be on my list: in Georgia politics, winning and losing usually depends on who ends up with the money.
One of the biggest groups of winners in 2011 was Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, and the state’s business leaders who were lobbying to expand the Georgia ports facilities by dredging the Savannah River.
This group still hasn’t figured out how to get the federal government to pay for most of the $600 million project, although I’m sure they will be successful at some point. They were able, however, to overcome a major regulatory obstacle presented by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (known as DHEC for short).
DHEC in September denied an important environmental permit that was needed for the river dredging project to move forward. In late October, a fundraiser was held in Atlanta for South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley by Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican activist who’s been a major supporter of such political figures as George W. Bush and Mitt Romney.
Haley, who cleared $15,000 from that Atlanta event, appoints and controls DHEC’s governing board. Less than two weeks after the fundraiser was held, the DHEC board reversed the agency’s earlier denial and voted to issue the environmental permit.
It was a nice haul for Haley, but an even bigger win for the Georgia officials who support the $600 million harbor expansion.
Officials of the Georgia Power Co. also had a big year before the Public Service Commission, which at one point was considering a proposal to require Georgia Power to pay a financial penalty if there were major cost overruns on the two nuclear reactors being built at Plant Vogtle.
The PSC had good reason to think about a risk-sharing proposal. The first time Georgia Power built nuclear generators at Plant Vogtle, the cost ballooned from initial estimates of $660 million to more than $8 billion.
Georgia Power officials, however, said they would not agree to share the financial risks of the latest nuclear project, and they kept saying “no” until the PSC finally gave up and scrapped the plan.
If there are any cost overruns on the $14 billion Vogtle project, the expense will be borne by Georgia Power’s customers and not by its executives or shareholders. The utility giant was a giant winner in this regulatory game.
Two Georgia politicians who took themselves off the hook for some major financial obligations in 2011 were Congressman Tom Graves of Gordon County and state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers of Woodstock.
Graves and Rogers borrowed $2.2 million from the Bartow County Bank several years ago to buy and renovate a hotel in Calhoun. In 2010, the bank sued Graves and Rogers for defaulting on the loan.
In the midst of the legal wrangling, the Bartow County Bank was shut down by regulators. The bank’s former chairman later told a reporter that the loan to Graves and Rogers “was one of the larger loans, and it contributed significantly (to the bank’s failure).”
The financial institution that acquired Bartow County Bank continued the efforts to collect on the loan, but finally reached a settlement with the two lawmakers in August. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but I would bet the amount involved was much less than the original $2.2 million loan.
Graves and Rogers were the winners. The Bartow County Bank was the ultimate loser.
Another group of winners is the 236 men and women who make up the membership of the Georgia Senate and House of Representatives. The General Assembly once again declined to pass any bills that would limit the amount of money lobbyists can spend to entertain lawmakers.
That suits the leadership just fine.
“Let the people be the judge about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” said House Speaker David Ralston, who once took his family to Europe on a trip paid for by a lobbyist. “I trust their judgment.”
(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com that reports on government and politics in Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)