Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has again done what he does best — pick a fight with a powerful public utility. Fortunately for the governor, he's on the right side of the issue. Unfortunately for Quinn and the people of Illinois, the utility has muscle with the Legislature and the veto probably will be overridden.
Illinois has a commerce commission to set utility rates, but state legislators can't resist doing special favors for powerful interests.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has again done what he does best — pick a fight with a powerful public utility.
Fortunately for the governor, he's on the right side of the issue. Unfortunately for Quinn and the people of Illinois, the utility has muscle with the Legislature and the veto probably will be overridden.
On Sunday, Quinn vetoed special legislation that would allow utilities like Commonwealth Edison to bypass the Illinois Commerce Commission and benefit from automatic rate increases.
"Senate Bill 9 continues a troubling pattern of departing from more than a century of regulatory oversight of utility company monopolies in our state. 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. This measure is another attempt to do that," Quinn said in his veto message.
This legislation is a follow-up on so-called "smart grid" legislation that was adopted last year over another Quinn veto. Electrical utilities touted the plan as a way to upgrade the electrical grid by investing roughly $3 billion over a 10-year period. The plan features more efficient delivery systems that include the installation of "smart meters" in the homes of Commonwealth Edison and Ameren customers.
To pay for the work, the utilities argued that rate hikes would be required. That is indisputably true.
But the legislation established a formula by which utilities would qualify for automatic rate increases, a controversial move that would leave the state commerce commission out of the rate-setting process. Previously, the ICC required utilities to justify rates hikes. Under last year's bill, the ICC now presides over a formula for setting new rates.
However, the ICC and Commonwealth Edison disagreed over the details of how the formula would be determined, prompting Commonwealth to run to its friends in the Legislature to request its determination of a proper formula be written into law.
The Illinois House complied by an overwhelming vote of 86-28 with state Reps. Naomi Jakobsson and Adam Brown siding with the utility company. State Rep. Chad Hays voted in opposition.
In the Illinois Senate, the vote was 44-9 in favor of Commonwealth Edison. Local Sens. Mike Frerichs and Chapin Rose voted in favor of the special legislation. Sen. Jason Barickman voted no and Sen. Dale Righter did not vote.
Given those overwhelmingly favorable votes, it would be no surprise if the Quinn veto is overridden, and state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, predicted that is what will happen.
If so, Commonwealth Edison will benefit to the tune of an additional $70 million.
Quinn, of course, has long used public utilities as scapegoats in his various political and public relations campaigns. He oversaw legislation establishing the Citizens Utility Board and loves to attack corporate interests.
But that does not mean he was wrong to veto this legislation.
What is wrong with having the ICC continue to operate as it always has — as an impartial arbiter charged with making public utilities justify their proposed rate increases? Why is the Legislature taking valuable time to micromanage hugely complicated rate increase proposals that the vast majority of its members do not understand?
The answer — as it always is in Illinois — is that entities like Commonwealth Edison have the necessary clout in the form of campaign contributions and a small army of lobbyists to get things done. In this case, the utility wants to put the finishing touches on its plan to turn Illinois' history of electrical utility rate regulation on its head, and legislators have fallen all over themselves to comply.