Consumer groups cheer on bills

ATLANTA --- This year's batch of legislation has given consumer advocates more hope than they've had recently.


Though the groups applaud some legislation, they are frustrated by other bills dealing with Georgia Power Co. rates and health insurance.

"It's a mixed bag," said Allie Wall, the executive director of the Georgia Watch consumer-advocacy lobby.

Foreclosure reform

Sen. Bill Hamrick, R-Carrollton, sponsored two bills dealing with this issue.

Senate Bill 57 requires loan brokers to make sure borrowers can repay the mortgage and prohibits brokers from getting bonuses for marketing high-interest loans. SB 146 requires quicker processing of property deeds so homeowners trying to sell to avoid foreclosure won't still get foreclosed on if a county clerk takes too long.

Another Hamrick bill, SB 140, died in committee. It would have ensured tenants in a building subject to foreclosure are notified and given a limited amount of time to move out.

Even though the other two bills passed the Senate, Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, believes too many senators have conflicts of interest in banking legislation, such as membership on bank boards, owning bank stock and bank employment.


The House and Senate passed SB 31, which gives Georgia Power the ability to charge customers more to cover costs of financing the construction of two reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga.

Consumer groups warned that construction costs could soar, with the increases being passed along to customers, but Georgia Power executives said they need the steady income to assure investors who will supply the upfront money for construction.

Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, used his pull as Senate president pro tem to attach an amendment to the Georgia Power bill that gives the Georgia Public Service Commission the power to determine which expenses are legitimate to pass on to customers.

House Bill 568 drew the ire of consumer advocates by changing the commission's practice of rotating the chairmanship just as Commissioner Bobby Baker is due for his turn. Mr. Baker often sides with consumer groups in voting against utility requests.

The bill failed on the House floor, but it was later reconsidered, with House Speaker Glenn Richardson breaking the tie for it to pass.

"House Bill 568 has the potential to create a permanent PSC chairman, otherwise known as a dictator," Ms. Wall said. "This is a bad bill, and the process was subverted when the House Governmental Affairs Committee voted it out without a quorum."

Health insurance

Mr. Williams suffered a defeat when he tried to pass SB 161, known as Ava's Law, which would have forced insurance plans to cover autism the same as any other illness.

The bill, named for Mr. Williams' great-niece, was heavily opposed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which feared it would boost insurance premiums. Ava's Law made it to the Senate floor Thursday but was tabled.

Another measure didn't even get that far. SB 182, which failed in the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee, would have extended from three to 18 months the period in which a laid-off worker could buy group health insurance from a former employer. The federal stimulus package enacted last month subsidizes 65 percent of the premium for nine months.

With neither the state nor the employer having to cough up funds under the measure, its failure puzzled many consumer advocates.

"It doesn't cost them anything," said Larry Pellegrini, a lobbyist for the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights.

Adult children who don't have their own health insurance could benefit from SB 94, which has passed the Senate. It would allow them to remain on their parents' policies until age 25. Currently, they are only covered if they are in college.

Ms. Wall said young adults might feel so invincible that they wouldn't buy their own policies. Plus, she said, dropping them off the parents' policy rarely results in a premium reduction for the family.

"I would argue that insurance companies are profiteering off of the enrollment requirement," she said.


Under SB 130, which has passed the Senate, people would no longer be able to sell their appliances online to rent-to-own companies and then rent them back at a premium.

Ms. Wall said the rates charged were so high that the arrangement was used as a replacement for payday lending, which was outlawed recently.

Reach Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or