The majority of Georgia’s legislators are a conservative group of politicians, as you would expect in a conservative state such as ours.
One of the tenets I have often heard my conservative friends avow is the right of a person to do as he or she pleases with the property they own. Property rights, I’ve been told, are one of the bedrock rights of people living in our free society.
There has always been one glaring exception to the belief that property rights should be protected: Georgia Power. The utility giant has so much influence over state politics that it has always been exempt from the rules.
If Georgia Power wants to run a transmission line across your property, it will take your land and there is very little you can do to fight it.
Georgia Power’s dominion also extends to the sunlight that falls upon your residence and the property that surrounds it.
If you want to set up solar panels to capture sunlight and generate your own electricity, you typically have to purchase the panels outright, which is too expensive for many homeowners.
Sen. Buddy Carter, a pharmacist from Pooler, is trying to make it easier and less expensive for property owners to generate their own electricity. He introduced a bill that would allow property owners to obtain the solar panels and related equipment they need by leasing it from manufacturers, a type of business arrangement that 45 other states already allow.
Georgia Power and the EMCs oppose this bill, on the grounds that state law gives them exclusive control over the generation of electricity within their assigned operating territories. Georgia Power’s preference is to spend billions on nuclear reactors rather than encourage customer use of solar panels.
The utilities have an ally in Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, whose campaign chairman just happens to be a member of Georgia Power’s board of directors. Cagle assigned Carter’s bill to a committee headed by a chairman who said he would not bring the measure up for a vote this year.
Carter did not give up. He worked with the chairman of another committee, Sen. David Shafer (R-Duluth), to add the text of the solar bill to a measure that deals with the "smart meters" used by power companies.
Shafer’s committee held an intense, two-hour hearing on Carter’s bill the other day, with a bevy of Georgia Power officials on hand to talk against it.
Consumer advocate and talk radio host Clark Howard, who testified for the bill, arose from his seat and pointed dramatically at the Georgia Power executives seated in the committee room.
"This is about us in Georgia joining the modern era," Howard said. "I’m here about the future. Do we move with the modern era, or do we go backward?"
Carter, who has become quite a populist on the solar generation issue, lashed out at Georgia Power for trying to kill the bill.
"We’re simply talking about the right to use private property," Carter said. "I recognize this is a David and Goliath situation. I recognize Georgia Power is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in this state. But it’s still a matter of personal property rights."
"There’s been a lot of conversation about property rights," Georgia Power official Kyle Leach responded. "We do not view it as a property right issue, we do not view it as a free market issue."
Leach’s statement is accurate. The objective of Georgia Power and its corporate parent, the Southern Company, is to maximize profits for shareholders. If your property right gets in the way of Georgia Power’s right to make a profit, you’re the one who’s going to lose.
Shafer’s committee has not taken a vote on Carter’s bill yet, but it is possible the measure could actually make it to the floor for debate by the full Senate. That would be a rare moment for the General Assembly. I cannot remember the last time the Legislature allowed a vote on a bill opposed so strongly by the utility giant.
Buddy Carter has courageously taken aim at the most powerful entity in state politics and fired the opening shots in a long battle for property rights. It’s a fight worth having.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)