Originally created 02/19/01

Session turns to natural gas



ATLANTA - The first half of the 2001 General Assembly was dominated by an emotionally wrenching move to change the state flag by substantially shrinking the portion of the banner taken up by the Confederate battle emblem.

The second half will be occupied with an issue that could be nearly as inflammatory because it's hitting Georgians in their pocketbooks.

The debate over what to do about soaring natural gas prices will kick off this week with a House subcommittee airing of a bill introduced late last week by Majority Whip Jimmy Skipper, D-Americus.

Mr. Skipper, the chairman of the panel, has pulled together a host of ideas from legislative Democrats and Republicans into a package that stops short of ending Georgia's 2-year-old system of natural gas deregulation.

"We are talking about consumer protection issues mainly," he said. "We are trying to make the natural gas deregulation as consumer friendly as possible."

The bill would allow the Public Service Commission to reimpose price regulations if that panel determines there are fewer than four competing marketers or that they are colluding to inflate prices.

That goes too far toward re-regulating the industry to suit Republicans, who have introduced an alternative measure that would increase competition by allowing Georgia's 42 electric membership cooperatives to get into the natural gas business.

But Mr. Skipper's legislation doesn't go far enough to suit legislative Democrats such as Sen. Regina Thomas of Savannah, who has introduced a re-regulation bill. She says she's prepared to resort to parliamentary tactics if necessary to liberate her bill from the Senate Finance and Public Utilities Committee.

While the natural gas issue wends its way through the committee process, the House and Senate floors appear sure to pick up the pace after weeks of relatively light agendas.

But first, the Legislature will be in recess today to allow the Senate Appropriations Committee to complete its work on Gov. Roy Barnes' midyear budget. The spending plan, which cleared the House two weeks ago, is expected to come to the floor for a vote Thursday.

"Cuts will have to be made," said Sen. George Hooks, D-Americus, the committee's chairman. "Difficult decisions will have to be made."

If the Senate approves a different version of the budget than the House, as is virtually certain, it will go to a joint conference committee to work out a compromise.

Today, the Senate Veterans and Consumer Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on a bill by Ms. Thomas that would speed evictions for delinquent renters. Lobbyists for low-income tenants are planning to argue the bill would be unfair to the poor.

Senators should also see two of the governor's major initiatives hit the floor this week - a water-management strategy and a plan aimed at speeding up highway construction.

Under an ambitious plan, Mr. Barnes would triple the speed of state highway construction to complete the widening to four lanes in seven years, financed with loans borrowed against money officials anticipate receiving from the federal government in coming years.

Mr. Barnes' water-management strategy would set up an 18-county district around Atlanta where efforts would be made to reduce stormwater runoff, increase sewage treatment capacity, improve water quality and boost water conservation.

The plan could become a model for how the governor addresses water issues in other parts of the state, including along the coast.

The Senate will hold a public hearing on video gambling Thursday.

A House committee will hold a hearing Wednesday on legislation prohibiting the transfer of out-of-state inmates to Georgia prisons. Several privately run prisons either already built or under construction have been planning to fill empty space with inmates from outside Georgia.

On the House floor, lawmakers will consider the governor's $468 million school construction initiative and his bill giving parents tax breaks on savings for their children's college expenses.

Reach Dave Williams and Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424.