A disconnect: climate change and the environment at the state legislature
By Maria Saporta
For a state where many of the top elected officials don’t believe in climate change and question whether humans play a role in pollution, Georgia environmental leaders actually hope the 2015 General Assembly will be a good one.
Whether it be reinstituting a buffer for development on marshes along the state’s coastal areas, or whether it be exploring a permanent source of state funding for transit, or whether it be allowing for the third-party financing of solar panels on people’s homes, the 2015 legislative session could leave the environmental community happier than it has been in a long time.
That seemed to be the consensus at the Sustainable Atlanta Roundtable (SART) meeting Jan. 9, held this month at the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
That’s when three legislators — Sen.-elect Elena Parent (D.-DeKalb); Rep. Pat Gardner (D-Atlanta) and Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) — spoke about what they expected would happen during the session.
“Transportation is going to be huge this year,” Taylor said. “The Lt. Governor is going to push transit very heavily this year. There’s going to be a push for a funding mechanism.”
Later Taylor explained that what’s driving Georgia to focus on transportation is the lack of funding from Washington, D.C. From his vantage point, MARTA still has to overcome the perception at the state capitol that it is just for poor people. But he said that is beginning to change.
“From an economic development point of view, we have lost significant corporate relocations here because of our gridlock,” said Taylor, adding that several companies now are deciding to move their offices next to transit.
Gardner said that support also is broadening.
“There is no opposition from the concrete boys,” she said. “They understand how important Atlanta is to the economy of the state.”
Parent, however, cautioned that most of the discussion around transportation funding revolves around the sales tax, which is most regressive – meaning it tends to place a higher burden on the poor. The legislature is considering lowering the income tax, which does the reverse. If a sales tax is passed as part of a reduction in the income tax, Parent said she would be concerned with the impact that would have on those who could afford it the least.
Another area where the legislators believed there could be significant movement in 2015 was with solar financing legislation – an issue that has been around for the last several years.
Sponsor Rep. Mike Dudgeon has worked with solar advocates and utilities to address various concerns on how to allow third parties to purchase solar panels and sell the energy back to homeowners. The impact of the legislation would mean that installing solar panels would become much more affordable to the average Georgian.
“Mike Dudgeon has been amazing in pushing this bill,” said Parent, who worked on the issue in her former role with Georgia Watch..
Taylor, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation, agreed. “Mike has been tweaking what is an already great piece of legislation,” he said.
Water is always an important issue for Georgia, and because of the multi-decade disagreements between Georgia, Alabama and Florida – issues have often been outside the control of the legislature.
Florida’s lawsuit of Georgia has ended up with a Special Master, who will recommend how the water should be divided between the states.
Gardner said this lawsuit is particularly significant, and that Gov. Nathan Deal has hired a new legal team to make sure Georgia is ready to respond by Feb. 5.
Parent said it is fortunate Georgia adopted aggressive water conservation measures a few years ago to show that it wanted to be a good steward of a limited resource.
“The projections for population growth are staggering,” said Taylor, adding that metro Atlanta’s population is estimated to grow from 5.7 million to 8 million – creating even greater reliance on the region’s limited water supply.
A related issue is that the ban on Aquifer Storage expired at the end of 2014. A Senate Study Committee likely will introduce legislation to address the issue to limit bacteria, pathogens and other byproducts getting into Georgia’s aquifers – of which hundreds of thousands of state residents rely on for drinking water.
The elected leaders at the SART program did anticipate that the state legislature would criticize federal clean air regulations with Taylor saying there would be “would be a lot of pushback from my Party on that.”
But Parent pointed out that those regulations really were “not within our purview” – although she acknowledged that national organizations would be opposing any stricter regulations that might be passed by President Barack Obama’s administration.
After the SART meeting, the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club sent out an email to its members letting them know of the teaching opportunities that exist among top state leaders.
The headline read: “Georgia Officials Out of Touch with Reality of Climate Change.”
The basis of the email was a recent article that had appeared in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution that reached out to more than a dozen key state leaders to ask their views of climate change and the role humans play in that change.
The Sierra Club email went on to say that according to its own polling, state leaders are out of step with their constituents – 81 percent who believe climate change is happening.
Now it’s up to us to help inform our state’s leaders.
“There is much work to be done to educate our elected officials on the issue of climate change,” the email read. “One thing is certain: States will be making decisions on issues of critical importance to both our health and the health of our environment. As we enter the 2015 legislative session, please consider contacting your state officials to let them know how you feel about climate change and our environment!”
So let’s keep our fingers crossed that the General Assembly will be gentle with the earth in 2015.