Civics lesson ComEd-style

Civics lesson ComEd-style

The Illinois Commerce Commission's main job is to oversee requests for rate hikes from powerful utilities — or is it?

The Illinois General Assembly showed again last week just how servile it can be when powerful interests flex their political muscle.

Members of the Illinois House and Senate overrode Gov. Pat Quinn's veto of legislation that limits the Illinois Commerce Commission's authority to oversee rate increases. This is a complicated issue, but most citizens will understand and agree with the argument that Quinn laid out in his veto message.

"It is not healthy for big utilities to be able to continuously circumvent the well-established oversight of the Illinois Commerce Commission each and every time they do not receive the regulation decisions and rate hikes they desire," Quinn said.

The history of Senate Bill 9 is long and tortured. But it's a perfect example of how powerful interests turn the people's representatives into rubber stamps.

Illinois utilities are investing $3 billion over a 10-year period to upgrade the electrical grid, and they are entitled to be able to recover those costs in the form of rate increases. The question is how those rate increases are to be determined — through the traditional oversight process by which the ICC requires utilities to justify the increases or through a company friendly formula that produces an automatic result.

Last year, at the behest of the Commonwealth Edison, legislators overrode another Quinn veto of legislation establishing an automatic formula. This year, unhappy with how the ICC interpreted some aspects of that formula, ComEd prevailed on legislators to write the company's more specific version of the formula into law. That's the bill Quinn vetoed and that has now taken effect.

The legislation addresses three disputed issues between ComEd and the ICC involving pension assets, interest rates and equipment costs. There are other disputed issues ComEd is challenging in court. All told, they involve roughly $100 million in rate increases.

The specifics, however, are not the issue, it's how they are to be resolved — by utility savvy professionals at the ICC or legislators, most of whom have no clue about the rate-setting process but are willing to do things ComEd's way.

Local legislators were not just split, but schizophrenic, on the issue. State Rep. Naomi Jakobsson voted for the original bill but against the override of Quinn's veto while Rep. Adam Brown supported the original bill and the veto override. Rep. Chad Hays voted against the original bill and against the override.

State Sen. Mike Frerichs supported the original bill and the veto override while Sen. Dale Righter, who did not vote on the original bill, supported the override. Sen. Jason Barickman voted against the original bill and against the override while Sen. Chapin Rose voted for the original bill but against the override.

The votes for the original bill and the override were overwhelming. The House voted 71-41 for the override and the Senate 41-11, easily exceeding the three-fifths majority needed to defeat a gubernatorial veto.

Those numbers show the leaders of both parties co-opted by the influence of a powerful interest determined to get things done its way and willing to do what is necessary to achieve that goal.

Legislative defenders of this action will, no doubt, argue that their decision was correct because ComEd is entitled to be compensated for its costs. But that's not really in dispute. It is entitled to be compensated, and that's one of the reasons the ICC was created many decades ago — to oversee the rate-setting process.

How do our legislators know what the proper course is in complicated disputes involving accounting intricacies? Does anyone really think that a majority of them even read the bill with, or even without, comprehension?

Illinoisans have seen this show before, and it goes like this. The powerful interest makes a deal with leaders of both parties, all of whom were on board with ComEd in this case, and gets what it wants. In turn, the powerful interest hires an army of influential lobbyists, makes generous campaign donations and/or provides jobs or lobbying contracts when certain influential legislators leave office.

Everybody wins but the public. In other words, it's government as usual in Illinois.

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