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Georgia Stands Behind Choice, Despite Minority Opposition

Georgia Stands Behind Choice, Despite Minority Opposition

The Georgia House and Senate passed separate bills last week that would change the states deregulation program for the first time since its inception in 1998. The changes, however, are a far shot from the re-regulation that some legislators including Georgia Sen. Regina Thomas (D-Savannah) had sought.

SB 217 and HB 665 --- which have been voted out of the Senate and the House respectively --- basically solidify consumers' rights that were already implemented by the Georgia Public Service Commission (GPSC) in the end of January (see NGI, Jan. 29). The most important provision in the bills would allow consumers to switch marketers at least once a year without incurring any service charges from switching to an alternative marketer. In a late January meeting, the GPSC approved that very same rule.

"They are just codifying some of the rules that we already had made in several areas," said GPSC Chairman Lauren "Bubba" McDonald.

Other rules within the pending legislation that affects the Georgia market include: limiting the amount of deposit that a marketer may require from a retail customer; providing for refunds of deposits under certain conditions; requiring the GPSC to have published at least quarterly in newspapers a summary of the price per therm and any other amounts charged to retail customers by each marketer; authorizing the GPSC to adopt regulations relating to marketer pricing and billing practices; and providing other billing requirements for marketers.

"Some of it changes the deposit [level] that a marketer can require and I have some concerns about that," said McDonald. "The fact that those that don't pay their bills gets passed on to those that pay their bills. That is one of the areas of concern in the legislation. Another area that can have an impact on the cost of doing business is requiring a marketer to have an office in the state. It's an expense. If I as a consumer want to do business with somebody that is in Texas that does business all over the world.....then so be it." If they offer better prices and service but don't have an office in Georgia, the consumer has access to the facts and can make the choice that is right for them, he said.

Spurred by high gas prices over the last few months, Sen. Thomas is leading a charge to reverse the 1997 deregulation legislation, and re-regulate natural gas in the state.

"I can understand the charges at the wellhead, but that is not the only reason why we are experiencing extraordinarily high gas bills," said Thomas. "We are still having so many other charges on our gas bills, some of them not even explained."

With billing problems and other snafus plaguing the three-year-old deregulation effort in Georgia, Thomas said she regrets supporting the measure back in 1997, and said that Georgians need to cut their losses and return to regulation.

Thomas said Georgians at large are paying for consumer education. "When the marketer or our gas supplier puts inserts in the bill, they call that education. So we are paying for them to make those up," Thomas said. "That's a charge that I don't think we should have to pay."

She also pointed out that consumers are being forced to pay Atlanta Gas Light a pipe maintenance charge. "I think the marketer should have to pay those fees, not the consumer," she said.

"I think that the only way for us to address this properly is to re-regulate the market and let Atlanta Gas Light go back to the drawing board now that they know what problems exist," said Thomas.

Thomas said that despite her efforts, Georgia SB 87 to re-regulate the natural gas market is not currently going anywhere. She said that legislators got together with Atlanta Gas Light to draft SB 217, which stops short of ending deregulation. As for SB 217 and its companion bill on the House side HB 665, Thomas said, "It doesn't do anything at all."

McDonald agreed with Thomas that SB 87 doesn't stand much of a chance. "That's not going anywhere," McDonald said. "It is just a smokescreen."

Almost everything that has been included in the bill has already been implemented by the Georgia Public Service Commission (GPSC) Thomas said. Although she admits to signing SB 217 because it is a small step in the right direction, Thomas remains skeptical because it involves the same players that did the first deregulation bill in 1997. "That's not going to help the consumer," she said. Sen. Thomas vowed she would continue to fight to re-regulate Georgia.

Alex Steis

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