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Monday, March 28, 2011 - 9:14am

Ethics Questions For Utility Contributions

A bill under consideration at the Capitol would allow utility companies to contribute to political campaigns. But it might not pass muster with state ethics laws.

Current Georgia law bars utilities like Georgia Power and Atlanta Gas Light from creating political action committees to funnel money to candidates. Some say that’s unconstitutional. They cite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision lifting restrictions on corporate campaign financing.

“If it’s unconstitutional, that question has not been raised in 30 years. And you know what, if other states have it and we don’t, we should consider ourselves lucky.”

Angela Spier Phelps is with ethics watchdog Georgia Watch and a former member of the Public Service Commission, which regulates Georgia utilities. She says allowing utilities to give to campaigns creates a conflict of interest because lawmakers also have sway over utility companies. She says Georgia Power successfully lobbied to get a 2009 bill passed allowing the company to charge ratepayers early for a nuclear expansion project.

That bill’s sponsor is also sponsoring this one. Snellville Republican Don Balfour says he is not beholden to campaign donors.

“I ran for re-election last year and I had two opponents who argued that I took a thousand dollars and voted this way, or I took $500 here and voted this way. And then the people decided I couldn’t be bought and paid for.”

Georgia's assistant attorney general Stefan Ritter says he could see legal challenges.

“Could that create problems? Possibly. Would there possibly be legal challenges to that law? There could be. I could see the argument that it’s a conflict of interest to do that.”

SB 160 has already passed the Senate Ethics Committee. It's currently tied up in a House committee.