Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Electricity deal could come soon

The Capitol is buzzing about a potential deal on electricity rate relief for Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison customers, who have been paying between an average of 25 percent to 55 percent higher electricity rates since a state law expired January 2.

The general framework of the relief package footed by the power utilities and potentially their parent companies is expected to total about $1 billion — doubling the former proposal — and offer relief for customers over three years, according to Sen. James Clayborne, a Belleville Democrat who’s been following the negotiations. Customers could receive checks for credits as early as two weeks after the agreement were approved by the state legislature and processed through the Illinois Commerce Commission. Another major change could be the creation of an Illinois Power Authority, which I wrote about in our June issue and could procure and generate power for Illinoisans.

We’ve been following the electricity rate debate and private negotiations for months, but Clayborne says, “We’re very, very close,” and, “I think we pretty much have an agreement. Logistically, we have to work out some issues.”

Rep. John Bradley, a Marion Democrat also close to the negotiations, said those details that still have to be ironed out are enough to stop him from screaming from the rooftops that a deal is coming. “The deal isn’t completely done. It’s being finalized. It’s in the final stages, but it’s not completely done.” But he did say he didn’t deny anything Clayborne said or deny that the deal is very close to being turned into legislation for the General Assembly to consider.

Ameren Illinois spokesman Leigh Morris had this to say: “I’m very optimistic that we are going to see a positive resolution to all of this in the very near future.” He added, “We certainly will be making the appropriate announcements to the news media. I think you will hear the thunder of feet running to the Blue Room.” (The Blue Room is in the Statehouse Press Room where people hold press conferences in front of a blue curtain.)

Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to approve an electricity rate relief package that comes his way. “For several months, the governor has urged the legislature to pass a bill that provides consumers significant relief from skyrocketing electric rates,” wrote Blagojevich spokeswoman, Rebecca Rausch, in an e-mail. “We understand negotiators are close to an agreement, and we look forward to reviewing the final product.”

Small group meetings or small progress?
The governor has been in town since Monday, but no official leaders’ meetings have convened. The legislature has broken up into small group meetings so far to discuss gaming, a capital plan, education, revenue, agency spending and the Illinois Department of Corrections. They’re closed to the public.

The governor also sent a letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan, House Minority Leader Tom Cross and Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson criticizing them for halting progress on a proposal to expand gaming, which would pay for the debt service on a capital plan and for education. “Negotiations broke down over your refusal to dedicate some portion of new gaming revenue to education,” the governor wrote. He also said, “A budget that invests in infrastructure without providing resources for education and health care is not an option. We must find a way to meet all of our obligations.”

A leaders’ meeting will convene in the governor’s Capitol office Wednesday afternoon. The Senate Education Committee also is holding multiple-hour hearings every day this week, and many witnesses testify about the impact of the state budget problems on education and its relationship to student achievement. The hearings are a well-organized love fest between educators and some of the lawmakers and won’t result in a vote on legislation.

Other legislative movement
Illinois is on an even playing field with Texas in the final stages of competition for a $1 billion coal gasification plant, which would bring national and international attention to the state, according to sponsors of legislation designed to attract the FutureGen project to Tuscola or Mattoon in central Illinois. The Illinois House approved the incentive package 99 to 0 with one voting present this afternoon. If Illinois were chosen by an international alliance, this state would house the world’s first zero-emissions coal-fired power plant that’s touted to be a cleaner source of energy. It also would be a groundbreaking public-private partnership between local, state, national and international entities, with the added perk of creating a lot of new jobs wherever it lands. The bill has to go back to the Senate for final approval.

The House also “approved” a resolution stating the current governor should stay in Springfield during overtime session. It’s written to identify and pressure Gov. Rod Blagojevich, not future governors. Despite loud “boos” primarily from Democrats, who said the resolution was unfair and presented only for political gain, the resolution was considered approved by a “voice vote.” The measure is nonbinding.

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