Tuesday, voters go to the polls to decide who will fill some of the state’s most powerful posts, including the governor’s office, and a seat in the US senate. Georgians will also decide on a race that seems to be off most people’s radar- the Public Service Commission- and the post has a lot of influence over a basic need of everyone- energy.
It's lunchtime at an Atlanta diner. Darcy Fulton is an interior designer who lives in a condo in mid-town. He thinks his $120 electricity bill is too much.
Fulton: It’s very high. It needs to be adjusted.
Stiers: You’re a Georgia Power customer right?
Stiers: It’s set to go up in January three dollars for a nuclear surcharge and it could go up $11 dollars on top of that.
Fulton: Oh my God. That’s outrageous.
Stiers: Do you know who decides that?
Fulton: No. I don’t.
Fulton like most of the people I spoke to had little idea about the elected body of five members called the Public Service Commission. It regulates the energy monopolies in the state like Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light and Atmos Energy. And it oversees other services like telephone and moving companies.
On the ballot Tuesday will be three candidates competing to replace one of the commissioners- long-time consumer advocate Bobby Baker.
While the new commissioner won’t be the one to vote on that $11 rate hike request from Georgia Power--- all candidates danced around the issue at a recent Atlanta Press Club debate.
Republican Tim Echols heads a Christian non-profit.
"It is a billion dollars and certainly that is a lot of money… 1/3 is for environmental controls, 2/3 is an increase," says Echols. "By statute they are guaranteed a profit and as difficult as that is for us to swallow that is the law. What we need to do is scrutinize Georgia Power and make sure we’re asking the tough questions to make sure their costs stay as low as possible."
Echols opponent Democrat Keith Moffett is an aide to the mayor of Macon. He says he wouldn’t vote for an unjustified rate increase.
"I know that justified can be kind of like called in a gray area," says Moffett. "I believe if it’s an unjustified cost such as expenditures on labor and other types of expenses, then I would not vote for those kinds of increases."
And there’s a Libertarian in this race--psychotherapist Jim Sendelbach. He suggested in the debate that the commission’s vote on a rate increase wouldn’t matter. He says that’s because of Georgia Power’s influence in the state.
"If it’s denied the utilities are going to take it to court and if it’s denied there, it will go to the legislature," says Sendelbach. "So one way or another Georgia Power will get some of that money."
Libertarian Sendelbach says the only way to get fair energy rates in Georgia would be a free market system. But that would require a rewrite of a Georgia law that limited competition decades ago. It divided the states into territories and assigned them utilities in order to get Georgia electrified more quickly.
But the only bill lawmakers have written of late relating to electricity rates is Senate Bill 31. It passed a couple years ago and lets Georgia Power charge its customers upfront for the financing of two new nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle. That charge will start in January.
Whoever fills the empty commission seat, will have to monitor the $14 billion project to make sure it doesn’t over-run its projected cost.
Back at the diner, Fulton, the voter still disgruntled over his electricity bill says he wants a consumer advocate in the post.
"We need to get someone in there that's going to be good for us the people," says Fulton.
Fulton says he has some more research to do before he heads to the polls.