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Bill to prepay nuclear plant clears hurdle
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ATLANTA - A bill that would open the way for Georgia Power to boost electric rates in 2011 cleared its first hurdle in the state House on Friday.

The House Regulatory and Utility Affairs Subcommittee approved the measure by voice vote.

The legislation would give Georgia Power permission to begin charging ratepayers early for interest charges to construct two new reactors at Plant Vogtle near Augusta. Under the bill, Georgia Power would be able to collect the charges years before the project's estimated completion date of 2017.

The average monthly electric rate bill would rise by $1.30 a month beginning in 2011. That would gradually rise to an estimated $9.10 monthly increase by 2017. Critics maintain those are conservative estimates and the costs could rise further, particularly if construction costs run over budget or the timetable for completion is delayed.

Supporters of the measure say it will save consumers money in the long run. Financing the interest costs upfront will shave about $300 million off the project's estimated $14 billion price tag.

Without the bill, Georgia Power argues electric bills will shoot up 6 percent in 2016 and another 6 percent in 2017.

"This saves your consumers money because they are going to pay one way or the other," state Sen. Don Balfour, the bill's sponsor, told House lawmakers Friday. The Snellville Republican and other backers have cast the bill as a critical economic development tool that would create jobs and lure companies to the state with the promised of affordable electricity.

But opponents maintain it's bad news for consumers, saying they will be forced to foot the bill for the plant before they ever see any benefit.

"The people who are supposed to be protecting the public are not doing it if they pass this bill," John Evans, of Lithonia, told the House panel.

The bill has already passed the state Senate. Critics had been hoping to stall its progress in the House. But after hearing two days of testimony, lawmakers approved the measure by voice vote without any discussion. State Rep. Randall Mangham, a Decatur Democrat, cast the lone dissenting vote. State Rep. Earnest "Coach" Williams," a Democrat from Avondale Estates, abstained until the Public Service Commission weighs in on the matter.

The bill now moves to the full committee, which could take up the bill as early as Monday.

Separately, the state Public Service Commission must still sign off on the utility's plan to build the reactors That vote is expected to take place in March.

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