ATLANTA — The Republican primary race for the District 4 Public Service Commission seat is heating up after a final debate was held Tuesday night by the Atlanta Press Club.
Incumbent Lauren “Bubba” McDonald is squaring off against Hall County Commissioner Craig Lutz and Lavonia attorney Doug Kidd.
The commission regulates the rates and services of Georgia Power, natural gas providers and telecommunications businesses. The commission, however, does not regulate municipal utilities and electric membership corporations, such as Jackson EMC.
The 30-minute debate explored a variety of energy issues that directly impact consumers’ pocketbooks, including Georgia Power’s solar initiative, federal regulations and potential changes to the telecommunications industry.
The biggest point of contention, perhaps unsurprisingly, centered on how to keep energy prices low for Georgians, but the three candidates vying for the Republican nomination had different takes on how to ensure this.
For example, McDonald defended his support for requiring Georgia Power to commit to generating 525 megawatts of solar power. But Lutz said he believed this “mandate” would drive up power costs for most Georgians.
“Our solar initiative is not a mandate,” McDonald said, the first in a series of back-and-forth barbs between the two candidates.
Later, when candidates were allowed to ask their opponents a question and then provide a rebuttal, McDonald questioned why Lutz called the solar requirement a mandate.
Lutz said the commission’s own news release about the megawatt requirement on Georgia Power stated as much. McDonald responded that the requirement had been debated and supported by Georgia Power.
Meanwhile, Kidd addressed a regular target of conservatives’ scorn — the Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite new federal emissions standards, Kidd said he supported coal power largely because it remains one of the cheapest sources of energy readily available to Americans.
“Unfortunately, [the EPA] is regulating now in such a way that it’s detrimental to Georgians,” Kidd said. “... There’s not much the state can do about it.”
When Kidd got his turn to ask a question, he pointed it at McDonald, accusing the incumbent of taking too large a salary and working less than 50 percent of the time.
“That’s not fair to the taxpayers of this state,” Kidd said.
Lutz also took the opportunity to question McDonald’s positions, including his eager support for solar power.
“Things that hurt taxpayers in the long run [are] not something [the commission] should be advocating for,” Lutz said, adding that solar energy projects were costing more than they are saving.
The commission recently signed off on a Georgia Power rate hike, prompting Lutz and Kidd to question whether this move had essentially guaranteed profit margins for the power company.
McDonald said he stood by the rate increases, adding that over 60 percent of the increases were a result of EPA regulations. Moreover, he said, the consumers in Georgia still pay about 15 percent below the national average.
In a rare moment of concurrence, all three candidates said they did not support renewable energy portfolio standards, or requirements on energy companies to diversify their services.
Kidd said such standards should be left up to the free market.
Lutz said the “ratepayer is ultimately the one who’s going to pay the price” of such standards.
And McDonald said, “No is the answer then. No is the answer tomorrow.”
But the differing opinions soon re-emerged when the candidates addressed issues related to the telecommunications industry.
Kidd said he supported phasing out a mandate that requires government to provide landline telephone services for rural areas. He said funding for this program was no longer needed because most Georgians have ditched their home lines in favor of mobile phones.
Lutz said he wanted to include provisions in the program to extend the reach of broadband Internet access. It’s where the “information of tomorrow” will be delivered, he added.
McDonald, meanwhile, said he continues to support the program because he doesn’t want to leave a single Georgian high and dry.
“Right now it’s a good thing and we need to keep it,” he added.
At the end of the debate, each candidate made a final appeal to voters.
Lutz touted his experience working for BellSouth as well as his business education.
“I think I can bring some ideas to the Public Service Commission to help future Georgians keep their prices low,” he said.
Kidd said his experience practicing law made him qualified for the position and promised to tackle ethics reform if elected, including limiting the influence of lobbyists.
McDonald stated his case more plainly.
“All you have to do is go back and look at my record,” he said.