Georgia bill would give utility regulators extra years in office without facing voters

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ATLANTA — Georgia’s Public Service Commission is an elected body that’s gone years without having elections because of a redistricting lawsuit.

Anticipating that a court will order elections to resume, Georgia lawmakers now want to add an extra two years to the six-year terms of commissioners on the all-Republican body.

The plan, approved Thursday by both the Georgia House and Senate in House Bill 1312, awaits the signature or veto of Gov. Brian Kemp.

The commission regulates what Georgia Power Co. and some natural gas companies charge. It has in recent years allowed Georgia Power, a unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co., to increase what it charges customers.

The reordering of the staggered terms could prevent a majority of the commission seats from being elected at the same time, meaning Democrats couldn’t take control in one election.

The bill stems from a lawsuit that sought to force commissioners to be elected from districts, instead of statewide. A federal judge ruled in 2022 that statewide voting illegally diluted the power of Black voters, banning statewide elections and ordering elections by district. It was the first time a statewide voting scheme had been overturned by a federal judge. But a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in November, saying Georgia was free to choose its form of government for the commission.

Curiously, though, the 11th Circuit has never issued a final order in the case. That means the original judge’s order blocking elections is still standing. Commissioners Tim Echols and Fitz Johnson were supposed to run in 2022, but remain on the commission today. The same will happen later this year with Commissioner Tricia Pridemore, because Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said it’s already too late to schedule elections in 2024.

The plaintiffs could still ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 11th Circuit’s ruling. But Brionte McCorkle, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said it’s bitterly ironic that commissioners currently face no elections at all and may get extra years in office.

“This lawsuit was intended to get more representation, intended to get more democracy on the commission, and now it’s being used against us to deny democracy altogether,” McCorkle, executive director of Georgia Conservation Voters, told The Associated Press on Friday.

Under the plan, Echols and Johnson would stand for election in 2025. Johnson was appointed to the commission in 2021 and was supposed to run for the last two years of his predecessor’s term in 2022, before running again in 2024. Instead he would run again for a six-year term in 2026. Echols would serve for five years until 2030, facing voters only twice in 14 years, before resuming regular six-year terms.

Pridemore would see her term extended until 2026, serving for eight years. Commissioners Jason Shaw and Bubba McDonald, scheduled for reelection in 2026, would instead serve until 2028. Their positions would then revert to six-year terms.

Senate President Pro Tempore John Kennedy, a Macon Republican, told senators Thursday that the plan is intended to serve as a guide for what the judge should do when the case ends. Otherwise, Echols, Johnson and Pridemore might all be ordered to stand for reelection together as soon as possible.

“There’s currently no state law that creates a plan for when your elections are missed, because that, of course, is something that we don’t contemplate in our legislature under the plan that’s proposed in this bill,” Kennedy said. “Georgia will reset the election cycle to ensure that the PSC continues to have staggered elections.”

Kennedy described the extra two years for Pridemore, McDonald and Shaw as “equitable” because Echols and Johnson have already served an extra two years without facing voters.

Some Democrats objected to the plan in limited debate.

“Wouldn’t it be in the interests of of the voters of Georgia to allow them to vote on this very important body as soon as possible?” asked Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat who described an eight-year term as “an amazingly long time.”

Echols and Pridemore declined to comment Friday. McDonald said he “had nothing to do with it, zero information, input into it.” But the former state lawmaker said, “It’s not to me to second-guess the General Assembly of Georgia.”

McCorkle, though, said the lack of elections means voters don’t get a say on what the commission is doing, and Georgia Power’s interests are protected.

“These commissioners are sitting in these seats with no electoral accountability, but they’re fully empowered to keep making decisions on these massive proposals that Georgia Power keeps putting in front of them,” she said.

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