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Thursday, March 10, 2011 - 1:15pm

Senate Opens Politics To Utilities

The state Senate passed a bill that would allow utilities to make political contributions. The bill’s proponents say continuing to keep entities such as power companies out of politics violates a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Republican Senators who voted for the bill said the Supreme Court ruling known as "Citizens United" protects the right of utilities such as Georgia Power to give money to candidates.

Sen. Don Balfour of Gwinnett County the Supreme Court decision gives companies the same rights to freedom of speech as individual citizens have. And he said the state must bring its laws in line with the federal ruling:

“The Supreme Court has said corporate contributions are legal," Balfour said after the vote. "And therefore it’s the law of the land and therefore if you have a state law that says you can’t give corporate contributions, it’s illegal.”

But some question whether there's a conflict of interest because the bill would increase the influence of utilities among politicians. Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Democratic Senator Vincent Fort of Atlanta says there’s already too much corporate money in politics.

“I don’t think we know what we’re doing," Fort said. "I think we ought to be talking about taking more money out of politics. We are going in the wrong direction."

Balfour says there’s no conflict of interest because state law still bans contributions by utilities to the state Public Service Commission, which regulates power companies and other entities.