Thursday, December 14, 2006

More electrifying debate

House Speaker Michael Madigan is governing by letter, again. This time, he’s lobbying against a proposal to phase in electricity rate increases scheduled to start in January. It’s not just any proposal. It’s one supported by Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and House Minority Leader Tom Cross, as well as Commonwealth Edison, the company serving most northern Illinois customers.

In a letter starting, “Dear Reporter,” Madigan says he intends to continue trying to pass legislation that “protects consumers and allows the electric monopolies serving Illinois to earn fair profits.” His emphasis on “fair” is consistent with his veto session comments that he takes the utilities’ warnings of financial ruin “with a grain of salt.”

Madigan then attached a memo (1 and 2) to all House and Senate members with some details that can be summarized by this argument: If signed into law, the phase-in proposal approved by the Senate would actually be a better deal for utilities and worse deal for consumers than if the General Assembly took no action and let the Illinois Commerce Commission decide how the new rates would be carried out. “The bill has been presented as a compromise measure and a better deal for consumers,” he wrote. “It is neither.”

Something’s not adding up here. While ComEd supported the phase-in approved by the Senate, Ameren Illinois CEO Scott Cissel opposed it and said the company prefers the proposals filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The company still opposes House Bill 2197, according to spokesman Leigh Morris. He didn’t know of Madigan’s memo and letters Wednesday night but said the company didn’t believe the Senate version of a phase-in would be a good deal for Ameren customers. In fact, he said the company filed a new proposal with the ICC that would 1) allow the company to charge a “carrying fee” associated with the phase in; 2) allow customers to opt into a phase-in plan, which would carry a 3.25 percent interest rate; 3) allow schools, municipalities and small businesses to opt in; 4) allow the utilities to opt out of the plan if the credit rating slipped to junk bond status; and 5) designate $15 million of non-consumer costs to energy assistance and renewable energy programs.

Ameren asked the commission to review the newest proposal before the end of the year. Lawmakers are scheduled to reconvene in Springfield a week later, when they’ll rehash the debate, again.

To me, the biggest question in this complicated, easily skewed debate remains: What power should the ICC have in regulating electricity rates?

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