Legislators authorize utilities funding chambers of commerce (updated and corrected)

Legislation authorizing natural gas utility companies to provide funding to local chambers of commerce was approved by the Senate on Wednesday. The House initially spurned the bill, but then reconsidered and approved it in the waning moments of the 2018 session.

Senate sponsor Delores Gresham (R-Somerville) said the measure (SB1894) came from utilities in her district that wanted to boost their economic development efforts but lacked the expertise to do so, while chambers of commerce have programs underway they could help with contributions. She accepted an amendment declaring the utilities cannot raise rates charged to consumers to pay for donations to the chambers and the bill passed 20-9.

But the measure ran into a wall of objections in the House, where Rep. Ron Gant (R-Rossville) was sponsor, and several amendments were adopted declaring that the proposed new law would not apply in various counties. Laden with the amendments, the bill was approved 53-29.

The Senate refused to go along with exempting multiple counties and, after some back and forth, a conference committee was set up to fashion a compromise. The resulting conference committee report exempted only the “big four” counties – Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Shelby. It was quickly approved by the Senate.

In the House, Gant said that other counties exempted by the House earlier did not have natural gas utilities and thus the amendments were unneeded. But Rep. Tilman Goins (R-Morristown) said Hamblen County might have one in the future and, in any case, it was wrong to divert money paid by consumers to a non-profit organization.

The initial House vote on the conference committee report got 43 votes – seven less than the 50 needed for approval.  But in the final moments of the session, it was brought back for another try and approved 52-26.

Note: The initial post said the bill died in the House, the old guy having missed the follow-up reconsideration. And the reconsideration didn’t show up on the legislative website Thursday morning. Apologies for the foulup and thanks to those who quickly pointed out the error.

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