* Today’s House Committee of the Whole to discuss electric utility rates and deregulation will begin at 1 o’clock. You can listen live by clicking here.
* I’m not sure how much I buy into this lede…
The leader of the Illinois Senate, who in recent months has been the Legislature’s top opponent of attempts to freeze electric rates, may be softening that stance in the face of intense downstate anger over skyrocketing Ameren electric bills.
A freeze “is one of many options that is being looked at,” said Cindy Davidsmeyer, spokeswoman for Senate President Emil Jones.
Jones is the main reason the Legislature didn’t freeze electric rates before they jumped dramatically in January, but there have been several indications lately that his thinking on that may be changing.
“Especially with Ameren, we have heard the concerns of a lot of consumers,” Davidsmeyer said Monday.
Jones’ apparent shift comes as the House convenes today a rare special hearing of all 118 members to consider the utility rate hike issue. The House passed a rate freeze once. It’s expected to easily pass a second time if it comes up for a vote, with lawmakers being inundated with calls from angry consumers who are getting their first look at the new rates.
There’s no doubt that Jones is feeling heat from his downstate members in Ameren’s turf. But remember that Jones still wants to protect ComEd, and he moved legislation out of Rules Committee last week that would impose a six-month rate freeze on Ameren only.
House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to extend the freeze to both Ameren and ComEd. As I told my subscribers last week, Madigan told me soon after Jones moved the Ameren-only bill that an amendment would be waiting for that legislation if it made to his chamber.
* Meanwhile, ComEd is offering up some token assistance to help “ease” its rate hikes.
ComEd promises to spend $30 million over the next three years on conservation programs and to help low-income and senior citizen utility customers cope with January’s 24 percent rate increase.
“We’ve done all the things we know how to do to soften the transition to the new rates,” said Frank Clark, CEO of the utility, which serves 3.7 million northern Illinois customers.
$8 per customer. Man, they really dug deep on that one.
* Illinois House set to discuss electric rates:
State Rep. George Scully, a Flossmoor Democrat who pushed for the special hearing, said it would last for several hours. “Consumers should be confident that their legislators are taking up this task,” he said.
* Editorial: Focus on real electric rate fix, not knee jerk response
These hikes are a real hardship for many, so a rate freeze may sound appetizing. But knee-jerk responses to complex issues are almost always a bad idea, and a freeze still won’t fix the underlying problem, namely that the Legislature’s 1997 deregulation plan failed to create competition, exposing residential customers to monopolized market forces. Ameren says a freeze would junk its credit rating, force layoffs and jeopardize service reliability.
For his part, Cisel says he will testify in Springfield today and hopes to offer a “workable compromise” on rates, the specifics of which will be divulged then. We’ll be all ears. House lawmakers should be, too. They should avoid posturing in this largely symbolic session and get to work on a real, long-term solution, which means compromising with Senate colleagues and exploring other avenues - including a serious study of re-regulation.
* The jolt of electric rate increases
Randy Huckelberry braced himself for a higher electricity bill when the state’s decade-old freeze on rates expired last month.
Huckelberry, 40, looked around at the new windows, insulation and siding he’d installed in his home in Downstate Carrier Mills. His highest bill in the winter months had been $300, maybe $400, so perhaps, he thought, it would go up a few hundred dollars. That definitely would be tough.
But he was floored when the bill turned out to be $870.
* And just remember this last point: February has been much colder than January, and Rep. Scully mentioned to me yesterday that usage is up over 100 percent. Those March bills are gonna cause yet another round of outrage.