New consumer coalition calls on lawmakers to ride herd on ComEd

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Two consumer groups and a prominent environmental organization are joining forces to clamp down on utility practices that resulted in favorable legislation raising delivery rates for consumers and padding profits of Commonwealth Edison and downstate power company Ameren Illinois.

AARP Illinois, Illinois PIRG and the Environmental Law & Policy Center have formed the “Take Our Power Back” coalition. It’s advocating that ComEd reimburse consumers for the profits it gained through a nearly decadelong bribery scheme aimed at winning support from then-House Speaker Michael Madigan, the most powerful politician in the state at the time. ComEd admitted to the scheme in a deferred-prosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in July.

The investigation thus far has resulted in criminal charges against former ComEd CEO Anne Pramaggiore, former lobbyist Michael McClain and two others. Madigan, though a target of the probe, hasn’t been charged and says he’s done nothing wrong.

The coalition also wants to “restore oversight” of ComEd. Illinois PIRG has called for an audit of ComEd’s billions in capital spending enabled by the 2011 smart-grid law that was at the heart of the federal government’s investigation of ComEd’s relationship with Madigan’s political operation. ComEd’s delivery rates increased 37 percent thanks to the law, which allowed the utility to change its rates every year via a formula that took away much of the discretion state utility regulators had over rate-setting.

And it wants to end some of the levers ComEd has employed to win favor in Springfield, including utility donations to state politicians’ campaigns and ratepayer funding of utilities’ contributions to charities. ComEd in the past has called on nonprofits it’s helped finance to advocate on its behalf when it’s lobbied for lucrative laws in the state capital.

Notably missing from the coalition is the state’s most high-profile consumer advocate on utility issues, the Citizens Utility Board. CUB is part of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, which has called for an end to annual formula rates for ComEd and Ameren but also has a far broader agenda aimed at overhauling the state’s power-generation industry.

“We view it as a complementary effort, and our focus is on passing the Clean Energy Jobs Act,” said David Kolata, executive director of CUB. He notes that some of the provisions the new coalition wants are in the bill CUB is supporting.

The coalition hopes AARP in particular might add some heft to its influence. Seniors vote at higher rates than other demographics. Utilities have run roughshod over consumer groups in past negotiations over wide-ranging energy bills, but that was before ComEd’s admissions of influence peddling and bribery.

“On behalf of our members, and all Illinoisans 50-plus, we stand fervently against this corruption that has hurt everyday Illinoisans and implore the General Assembly to support this agenda and put consumers first once and for all,” AARP Illinois Director Bob Gallo said in a release.

ComEd’s formula rate-making authority expires at the end of next year, and it’s attempting to take advantage this year and next. ComEd has budgeted nearly $4 billion in spending on the local grid through 2022—investments that will lead to higher rates.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has called on state lawmakers to pass comprehensive energy legislation this spring that would put Illinois on course for a carbon-free power-generation industry. But, as is typical in energy politics, various interests are vying for support, and it’s unclear if that goal will be met. In the past, utility clout made parties at loggerheads come to the table and get what favorable policies they could from the process. The dynamic is different now thanks to ComEd’s disgrace, and even people involved in the talks on a regular basis are struggling the predict the outcome.

via Crain’s Chicago Business https://ift.tt/1mywUHL

March 18, 2021 at 09:08PM

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