2017 – 2018 Georgia Environmental Scorecard
The Georgia environmental scorecard helps you understand your state legislator’s conservation record so you can hold them accountable. We score votes on the most important issues of the year, including energy, climate change, public health, public lands and wildlife protection, and spending on environmental programs.
We also highlight legislators who go above and beyond for our air, water and greenspace because important work to protect our environment often doesn’t always result in a vote on the floor of the State House or Senate.
Every year the Georgia legislature meets for 40 days. These sessions last for two years, during which hundreds of bills are introduced, debated, and amended. Some make it to the Governor for final approval. Incredibly important environmental scorecard topics like water contamination from toxic coal waste, expanding transit, solar power and measures to expand and protect Georgia’s green space were all part of the 2017-18 legislative session.
The following legislators are highlighted in our environmental scorecard because they went above and beyond for our air, water and greenspace. Often this important work happens behind the scenes, when a bill gets killed before it is taken to a vote, or when the introduction of a bill forces action of a different type Important work to protect our environment doesn’t always result in a vote on the floor of the State House or Senate, and these stories are important.
Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act
Georgia has fallen behind its Southeast neighbors in funding for land conservation for decades. In 1998, an attempt to fund land conservation through an increase in the real estate transfer tax failed on the ballot because of opposition from realtor associations. In 2018, thanks to the leadership of Representative Jon Burns who crafted the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, Representatives Sam Watson and Chad Nimmer who built support amongst their House colleagues and Senator Steve Gooch who carried the measure through the Senate, Georgians will vote this November on a Constitutional amendment to permit the creation of a $20 million per year fund for land conservation and public access.
Representative Jeff Jones has been working to protect Georgia communities and water supplies from coal ash for over two years. Jones’ efforts have been opposed by Georgia Power and landfill companies. Rep. Jones’ tenacity and support from Representative Chad Nimmer and freshman Representative Rick Williams and Representative Debbie Buckner led to House passage (169-3) of HB 879 a simple measure that requires Georgia Power to notify neighboring locales when they start dewatering the wet coal ash storage pits at its plant sites and requires a notice in the local official organ. This is minimal protection for water and people, but it is also the first law on this subject. Senator Tyler Harper moved the legislation through Senate Committee but Lt. Governor Casey Cagle never brought the legislation for a Senate vote. In 2017, HB 387, HB 388, SB 165 by Rep Jones, Nimmer and Representative Bill Werkheiser and Senator William Ligon, respectively, deal with the disposal of coal ash. None of these pieces of legislation made it out of committee but the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) did create a coal ash issues webpage with increased disclosures and tracking.
Another important piece of coal ash legislation, HB 975, by Representative Dan Gasaway (R-Homer) would have protected Georgia communities from coal ash imports from other Southeast states by imposing an excise tax on it. This bill would create a tool the General Assembly could use to curb this waste from coming to our state by simply increasing the tax. Coal Ash disposal is a national issue and because of federal legislation will be an issue for the next 10 years as all states that have used coal to generate electricity will be looking for a place to dispose of this waste. The legislation got a hearing but not a vote in a House Natural Resources Subcommittee.
Nuclear Expansion at Plant Vogtle
Two efforts to limit the negative impact on Georgians from the building of two new nuclear units at Plant Vogtle near Augusta were undertaken this session. Senator Chuck Hufstetler’s SB 355 as introduced limited the rates recovered under the nuclear tariff to those accrued up until the scheduled date for commercial operation. During the process, it was scaled back to simply sunset the collection of the tariff. Senator Elena Parent and Senator Nan Orrock brought Democratic support to the effort. Representative Andy Welch carried the measure in the House.
House Bill 924 would have allowed Dalton Utilities to skip a mandated public referendum before selling any bonds for Plant Vogtle overruns by allowing a local bill to suspend that requirement, and was subsequently amended to SB 189. Representative Jason Ridley refused to sign the local legislation despite pressure from Dalton Utilities. Senator Chuck Hufstetler worked with Minority Leader Senator Steve Henson to table the bill on Day 39. It ultimately passed the Senate and went back to the House to die.
After President Trump included Georgia’s coast in his draft drilling plan resolutions were introduced in the both the House and the Senate urging protection for the coast and the thriving coastal tourism economy from oil and gas drilling. Chairman Ron Stephens, Representative Carl Gilliard, Representative Don Hogan, Representative Jeff Jones and Senator Lester Jackson deserve special recognition for sponsoring these bills and actively advocating for their passage. Unfortunately, none of the anti-offshore drilling resolutions introduced even got a vote in committee.
Representative John Meadows HB 205 updates Georgia’s regulations for oil and gas drilling passed the Senate 51-0 the day after the Georgia Water Coalition recognized him as one of the “Clean Thirteen.” The bill is a carefully crafted mixture of state and local regulatory options that is based on protection of water supply and quality.
In 2017, Representative Bill Hitchens and Senator Jack Hill introduced SB 191 to protect communities by strengthening regulation of petroleum pipelines in Georgia. The legislation was the result of a study committees work and provides strong protection for land owners who face eminent domain threats from petroleum pipeline companies.The leadership of Representatives Al Williams and Jon Burns helped to fight off attacks from the pipeline company Kinder Morgan throughout the legislative process and Representative Karla Drenner’s minority report urging that the bill be restored to a measure that protects property rights and the natural environment from the hazards of pipelines resulted in passage of the legislation as HB 413.
MARTA is the 9th largest transit system in the country, and the only large transit system that receives no ongoing support from its state. In 2012 voters in most regions across the state rejected a TSPLOST referendum, which would have levied a 1% sales tax to fund transportation projects. Forward momentum was gained in 2014 when Clayton County voters overwhelmingly approved joining MARTA, representing a $2.4 billion infusion to the system and the first service expansion in decades. The MARTA Act allows Gwinnett and Cobb Counties to join as well, but the politics have historically been even harder in those places. At the same time, other metro counties, like Douglas and Rockdale have expressed some interest in transit but had no route to come in to a regional system.
Senator Brandon Beach took a highly publicized trip from Marietta to Lawrenceville on transit to draw attention to the inefficiency and service challenges to which the current patchwork of transit services subjects riders, and has been an advocate for expanding transit for several sessions. When the House passed a resolution to undertake a Transit Study Committee, House Transportation Committee Chair Kevin Tanner rolled up his sleeves and crafted a piece of legislation that was sensitive to all the political problems that have dogged efforts in the past while creating an incentive approach for local jurisdictions to want to participate.
Electric Vehicles help to clean up our air and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels but past legislatures eliminated an EV tax credit and instead established punitive fees that hurt only EV drivers. Representative Allen Peake championed an effort to reverse this wrong and put Georgia back on the path to a clean car future but the legislation never got a vote in committee.
Upon the proposal of the Camden Spaceport, which would host up to six rocket launches annually, closing down coastal roads, waterways and Cumberland Island National Seashore, Representative David Knight has sought to recognize but also seek balance between the proposed space port and commercial interests such as shrimping, fishing, as well as private property rights. Rep. Knight serves as the Chairman of the Games, Fish and Parks Committee, and is an avid outdoorsman, and introduced HR 643 to stress that Georgia elected officials have a duty to make sure we understand all impacts of this project and ensure a balanced perspective is represented.
Landfills & Waste
SB 385 and HB 792 raise host fees paid by private landfill operators in the 13 counties hosting regional landfills. The current fee is $1 per ton, which has been unchanged since initial enactment some 25 years ago. SB 385 is a straight fee hike, but the House NR Committee reduced the fee to $2 and removed all fees for Georgia Power’s coal ash. Senator Burt Jones, the sponsor of SB 385 was able to persuade the Senate Natural Resources Committee to restore the increase to $3 on HB 792, a bill that continues collection of fees for the Hazardous Waste Trust Fund for another year and after a compromise, it was passed as HB 792 at $2.50 per ton thanks to the leadership of Representative Andy Welch in the House. Unfortunately, the bill as passed includes a hand-out to utilities and keeps fees low for any coal ash being deposited in a landfill.
Trust Funds/Good Government
HR 158 by Representative Jay Powell and Representative Andy Welch would have placed a Constitutional Amendment on the November 2018 ballot that would have let voters empower the General Assembly to create and abolish fee-based programs with non-lapsing trust funds so that all funds collected would be used solely for the purposes for which they are collected. This should lead to increased funding for clean-up of hazardous waste sites and illegal tire dumps and other fee based programs. This Honesty for Trust funds provision is very popular and has support from the state’s counties and cities and even groups like the Farm Bureau, as well as Sierra Club and the Georgia Water Coalition but was stopped by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle in the Senate.
Together Environment Georgia and Georgia Conservation Voters have decades of experience in Georgia promoting smart environmental policies and the legislators who help champion those policies. With input from Georgia’s most respected environmental and conservation organizations we work together to produce the environmental scorecard for each legislative session.