Negotiator says electric rate deal nearly done

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- After a series of false starts, a deal to provide consumers relief from soaring electric rates might be coming soon at the state Capitol.

Sen. James Clayborne, a key Democrat negotiator on the issue, said Tuesday an agreement is "very, very close" more than seven months after electricity prices exploded.

Electric rates spiked in January after a 10-year rate freeze ended, and some customers saw their bills double or triple.

Legislators have promised for weeks to finish a deal or push ahead with another rate freeze, but nothing has emerged.

Clayborne said the main components of the deal are in place -- about $1 billion in relief over four years -- but some details must still be worked out.

"I think we pretty much have an agreement," Clayborne said. "It's still logistically we have to work out some issues."

The snags include whether to require ComEd and Ameren to give customers rebate checks for the higher rates they've paid this year, a position backed by House Democrats, or give them credits on future bills for the higher amounts, the Senate Democrat preference.

Negotiators also are talking about how much of the agreement would have to be approved directly by the legislature and how much would need approval from the utility-regulating Illinois Commerce Commission, Clayborne said.

Clayborne wouldn't discuss how much relief the deal would provide for the average rate payer, and said it's unclear how quickly consumers would see discounts.

Last week, he said he was confident a vote would come this week. Clayborne said Tuesday the snags could delay that, but not for long.

Some lawmakers who have pleaded for help for their constituents say they're encouraged but won't get excited until an agreement is final.

"It's as close as it's been," said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion. "But until it's done, until there's actually a bill to vote on, I think we need to be cautious."

Consumer advocates reserved full judgment until they see the proposed benefits.

"We are encouraged by what we've heard," said Dave Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. "The most important thing is to get this right."

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