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Pre-pay utility bill starts way through House
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ATLANTA - Few proposals this legislative session have sparked as much acrimony as a Senate measure that paves the way for Georgia Power to begin charging ratepayers early for a $14 billion nuclear expansion.

The plan, which would effectively increase an average Georgia Power customer's monthly electric bill by about $1.30 starting in 2011, passed the Senate last week. But critics hope they can cripple - or at least delay - the measure as it works its way through the House.

It faced its first test in that chamber Wednesday, as a subcommittee of the House Energy and Utilities Committee heard from a litany of speakers.

Supporters of the bill have depicted it as a crucial job-saving measure that would help keep factories humming throughout the state. The company says it could shave about $300 million from the total cost of the plant.

"If we decide not to pass this bill, we're giving jobs to North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and places with lower rates," said state Sen. Don Balfour, the measure's sponsor.

But critics say the measure is a raw deal for consumers, and that the decision belongs in the hands of the Public Service Commission, which regulates the industry.

Allison Wall of Georgia Watch said the talk about jobs was a "red herring" and that Georgia Power has signaled that it would build the plant regardless. She urged the committee to resist political pressure and sit on the bill until the commission can debate it.

"Any day now the PSC is going to act," she told the subcommittee. "Why? Why are we here in a venue - with all due respect - with non-experts on the matter?"

Indeed, some members seemed unfamiliar with the proposal. One lawmaker, for example, asked where the nuclear power plant is located. It's clear, though, that they haven't heard the last of the bill.

Republican State Rep. Bob Smith, the subcommittee's chair, said the panel could consider the measure Friday. If it's adopted, it could reach a vote in the full House later this month or early March.

The measure would allow Georgia Power to start collecting the fees six years before construction of two nuclear reactors near Augusta are scheduled to be completed.

The utility giant estimates that customers would see their bill gradually rise from an additional $1.30 a month in 2011 to $9.10 per month by 2017. That is when the company's two nuclear reactors are scheduled to come online.

Balfour, a Snellville Republican, spent half an hour pumping the bill as everything from a "pro-American" proposal to help wean the nation from its reliance on foreign oil to a fiscal imperative for a utility giant seeking some consistency.

But he tried to stress that residents will likely wind up forking over the costs regardless. If the Legislature doesn't act, he said ratepayers wouldn't have to start paying higher rates until the plant is completed.

"And then," he said, "rates will jump 12 percent in the first two years."

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