It’s potentially risky to write a column Sunday for publication Tuesday regarding a trial that could end Monday, but no matter what a federal jury decides regarding four former Commonwealth Edison officials accused of bribery, many of the conditions that led to this precipice will remain unchanged.
Courtroom arguments yielded to jury deliberation last week. Hannah Meisel, writing for Capitol News Illinois, summarized things well: “Three ex-lobbyists for ComEd and the utility’s former CEO stand accused of orchestrating a seven-and-a-half-year bribery scheme in which they allegedly gave jobs and contracts to allies of longtime House Speaker Michael Madigan in exchange for an easier path for the utility’s preferred legislation in Springfield.”
Madigan is out of office, in no small part thanks to his implication in the federal bribery investigation, but Statehouse rules still endow outsized power with legislative leaders. They can’t enact legislation alone – indeed, the trial addressed gubernatorial vetoes and overrides – but it’s hard to envision any proposal being viable absent the support of both the House speaker and Senate president.
The second immutable issue is that ComEd, like many other utilities, is reliant on the General Assembly for approval of key proposals and subject to Illinois Commerce Commission oversight, yet also accountable to investors. It’s important to subtract from this conversation cooperative and municipal utilities, but ratepayers whose electric, gas or water providers also are publicly traded have long since realized the price of their monthly bills isn’t anyone else’s top priority.
Peddling of influence may not be inevitable, but arguing to elected officials why they should vote certain ways is inherent to our political structure. So long as the fates of ComEd and its for-profit brethren are intertwined with state lawmakers, and so long as those lawmakers rely on chamber leadership for direction, it’s hard to see us moving to a different era where every bill gets a simple yes-no vote based primarily on its direct effects on taxpayers.
Like many businesses with deep roots in Illinois, for-profit utilities deliver significant upside. They hire scores of residents, paying many very well with excellent benefits, and have substantial real estate holdings and generate meaningful property taxes, even as they seek ways to limit those obligations. It’d be shortsighted to downplay these companies’ might as economic engines, so any reasonable assessment must include those pros with any cons.
We’ll watch closely for the jury’s verdict, not to mention any further litigation stemming from the federal investigation, and hope that no matter how this trial concludes, there is at least some appetite for – wherever possible – addressing the way things are done in Springfield and identifying fixable weaknesses.
But don’t expect seismic change. The system isn’t designed to be overhauled.
• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media. Follow him on Twitter @sth749. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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May 2, 2023 at 05:08AM