It will be years before we know whether the Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner made the right choice in backing the multibillion-dollar deal to save two Exelon Corp. nuclear plants from closure, along with providing incentives for energy conservation and giving a financial boost to the state's renewable fuels industry.
Exelon's "Future Energy Jobs" bill won't take effect until next summer and many of its provisions, including capital investments in energy conservation, will take years to fully materialize.
Early in the week legislators seemed nervous about the bailout, which at its most funda mental level provides up to $235 million in subsidies every year for the next 10 years to Exelon to keep its money-losing Clinton and Cordova nuclear plants operating.
It wasn't until Gov. Bruce Rauner got on board with the proposal — and gave anxious lawmakers political and intellectual cover — that it had a green light.
After that there was little standing in the way. A few groups — the attorney general's office, the AARP and some business groups (although not all) — offered some resistance, but they were overmatched by Exelon's long list of allies and an army of lobbyists.
The only thing that might have made a difference, and which would have been great political theater, would have been Attorney General Lisa Madigan's personal intervention in the legislation. Madigan had two top assistants raise a battery of questions and doubts about the bill in the House and Senate committees, but the attorney general herself never worked the bill, at least in public.
Imagine that showdown: Exelon and Rauner vs. Lisa Madigan. Better than David vs. Goliath.
(As a side note, Madigan's father, House Speaker Michael Madigan, did not vote on the bill).
Consumer protections were weakened in the bill, asserted Cara Hendrickson, chief of the public interest division in Madigan's office. Energy efficiency spending is too high while low-income energy efficiency spending is too low, she said, and hundreds of millions of other spending wouldn't benefit consumers.
But for the most part the opponents were drowned out by Exelon, which controlled the agenda and the message. Its executives told lawmakers it couldn't wait any longer for a vote on the deal.
"The simple answer is that we are out of time. The two plants are losing money, hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years and we cannot continue to carry that loss," said Kathleen Barron, an Exelon vice president. "There is no other solution, state or federal."
She said that Exelon had "begun the process of winding down operations and preparing the stations for decommissioning."
The issue was couched by the corporation — which had profits of more than $2 billion last year — in terms of preserving jobs, reducing air pollution and economic fairness.
"Just these two plants power 12 percent of the state of Illinois, the generate a huge amount of economic activity and pay a lot in taxes. They power our economy and they do so without emitting one ounce of air pollution," Barron said. "My colleagues at these two stations don't understand what's going on here. They don't understand why the state has rules that require customers to pay up to $200 a megawatt hour to other sources of clean energy while they don't receive anything and then they're criticized for not being competitive."
When it came to votes in the House and Senate, the measure actually got impressive support. Usually controversial issues pass with the minimum number of votes required so that as few lawmakers as possible are put at risk of taking a "bad vote." But the Exelon bill got 63 votes in the House, three more than were needed, and 32 in the Senate, two above the minimum. And both chambers had numerous absences by the time the votes were taken Tuesday night.
It made for another sad commentary on a Legislature that seems impotent and fearful in the ongoing budget dispute between Rauner and Michael Madigan, but was willing and able to take tough votes to assist a profitable corporation.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.