Amendment on utilities aims to free operations

Friday, September 27, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- If a city or county operates a public utility, the state constitution exempts that utility from oversight by the Missouri Public Service Commission. However, if multiple cities or counties jointly run a utility, it is subject to the commission's edicts.

Amendment 4, put on the Nov. 5 ballot by state lawmakers, would change the constitution to grant the same freedom from state regulation to all public utilities, including joint ventures.

Supporters say the amendment would provide local governments with an incentive to cooperate on power plant projects that may not be economically feasible for one government acting alone.

Duncan Kincheloe, executive director of the Yes on 4 campaign, said passage would ultimately result in savings for public utility customers as increased generating capacity would cut down on the need to purchase power on the open market.

"It is pretty clear municipal utilities would be able save money for themselves and customers if we had more power generated in Missouri and owned by municipal utilities," Kincheloe said.

There are 88 public electric utilities in Missouri plus 42 public natural gas suppliers. Kincheloe said most are small and many are unable to meet demand on their own.

A number of Southeast Missouri cities operate utilities, including Jackson, Sikeston, Kennett, Poplar Bluff, New Madrid, Fredericktown and Malden.

The public utilities in those and other Missouri cities are exempt from PSC oversight because they are already accountable to local elected officials, making state regulation duplicative.

The amendment would not infringe on the PSC's regulatory authority over private utility companies. PSC spokesman Kevin Kelly said the commission has opted to remain neutral on Amendment 4.

Kincheloe said if municipalities take advantage of the ability to cooperate, it could prove an economic boon for the state. New power plants would mean more construction jobs to build them and more permanent employees needed to operate them. Kincheloe said a secure power supply would prove attractive to new industries considering locating in the state.

"That means jobs for Missourians," Kincheloe said.

Amendment 4 wouldn't cost taxpayers and has the potential to save the state money, according to the financial impact statement prepared by the state auditor's office.

So far, no opposition to the measure has emerged. Kincheloe said that is both a boon and a burden for the Yes on 4 campaign.

"It is good to have nobody opposed but it also means very little controversy and very little news coverage," Kincheloe said.

A factor that worries supporters is the legalistic ballot language.

To raise the campaign's profile, former Secretary of State Bekki Cook of Cape Girardeau and former State Auditor Margaret Kelly have been recruited to help explain the issue to voters.

Cook recently said there is "only upside" to Amendment 4, as it would allow municipal utilities to be more efficient and would help provide sufficient power production in the state.

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