Legislators voice mixed views of electric rate relief package

Sunday, July 29, 2007
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, debated Senate Bill 1592 prior to its 80-33 passage Thursday in the Illinois House. (Jonathan Kirshner ~ The State Journal-Register)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- A $1 billion relief package for consumers fed up with high electric rates sailed through the legislature, but not without criticism that highlighted two different ways of looking at the complex, emotional issue.

Most lawmakers saw it as a "glass half-full" solution -- not perfect but much better than doing nothing. It refunds some of the rate increases consumers have endured and creates a new agency to minimize future price surges.

But others view the plan, passed by the legislature Thursday, as half-empty. It fails to roll back rates, it allows more increases and it halts legal efforts to determine whether power companies colluded to inflate prices.

The critics say their constituents deserve more.

"They see through this," said Sen. John Jones, R-Mount Vernon. "The general public's not dumb. They understand what's going on up here more than some people think they do."

It's fitting that disagreements would continue even after the relief package was sent to the governor's desk. Nothing polarized legislators this year like the problem of electric rate increases.

Prices spiked in January, when a 10-year freeze on electric rates ended. The outcry from angry consumers forced legislators into action. But agreeing on what action took months.

Democrats, utilities and consumer groups take the "half-full" approach to the compromise. No, it didn't roll back rates as much as they wanted. But if nothing else, it did something to deal with consumers' complaints they were paying too much for power.

"I think most people are positive that something happened and that finally something got done after all this time," said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion.

The relief package gives Ameren customers at least $100 back this year, and many will see much larger checks. ComEd customers, who saw smaller increases, will get about $80 back this year.

Advocates say $1 billion is a better deal than a rate freeze, which sounded enticing to consumers but might have placed the utilities in financial peril and been tied up for years in costly court battles.

And it's much more than the $50 million and $150 million the utilities originally offered in negotiations, they note.

"I think this is what we had to do and I think it was the best thing for everybody," said Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria.

An auction process that was used to set rates last year is being thrown out. Instead, a new Illinois Power Agency will use independent experts to negotiate deals, much like buying clubs for bulk purchases of prescription drugs.

But for some Republicans, the deal was too much show, too little go.

The $1 billion, while certainly large, amounts to only a few bucks a month for people hit hard by increases. That's only a fraction of the billions of dollars the utilities and power generators will collect over the same period in rate increases.

"No one in my district has contacted me who was fooled by this proposal," said Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington. "Everyone that has talked to me thinks that it's laughable."

Rates will slowly go up over the next several years, and could go up even more if the new state agency can't negotiate good deals. And critics argue the new power agency will essentially duplicate work done by the Illinois Commerce Commission. The next few months could help determine which side has the advantage.

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