Springfield energy bill negotiations freeze out business interests

Springfield energy bill negotiations freeze out business interests

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The recent wrangling over the governor’s massive energy agenda in Springfield is a case in point, but it’s only the latest example of decision-making at the highest levels that includes everyone but those who will have to pick up the tab. No one on Team Pritzker, it seems, consistently stands up for the business community.

As Crain’s Steve Daniels reports, the Senate left Springfield having failed to vote on legislation to both keep open the nuclear plants that Chicago power giant Exelon plans to close and to put Illinois on a path to a carbon-free power-generation future. But a lingering dispute between environmentalists and labor over the timetable to close fossil fuel plants remained stalemated and forced Senate President Don Harmon to adjourn the chamber’s proceedings without a vote.

Earlier that day, Daniels reported that a coalition of business organizations, led by the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, had made an 11th-hour plea to kill or at least stymie the bill. One of their central complaints was that the Pritzker administration and legislative Democrats hadn’t issued cost estimates for the bill. It wasn’t that they and their members weren’t willing to pay more—these organizations have backed power bill hikes in the past in order to maintain the electric reliability so necessary to keep their enterprises humming. Their concern was that the measure as then configured could raise power costs for their various members by 8 to 15 percent. The business coalition was frustrated that those percentages are, at best, an educated guess—no estimates have been forthcoming from the policymakers themselves—and when the fine points of the bill were being hammered out in the month prior to the thwarted vote, business organizations like the manufacturers, the retailers and the Building Owners & Managers Association were not invited to take part.

So who was in the room? Environmental advocates and union representatives, green power companies, as well as Exelon and its Commonwealth Edison subsidiary.

The measure those favored few were hashing over that day promised nearly $700 million over five years to Exelon for its nuke bailout. It promised more than $200 million per year for support of new solar and wind development. It pledged more than $200 million annually for various energy-oriented social programs, including electric-vehicle infrastructure and equity investments. All of that would be charged to ratepayers in the form of surcharges on their electric bills. Unlike in past energy bills, there were no caps imposed on how much rates could go up. As Daniels points out, that serves two purposes. It ensures the money for the various interests doesn’t run dry, as it has for new ratepayer-funded solar development under the 2016 Future Energy Jobs Act. And it prevents critics from providing a solid cost estimate for how much ratepayers will have to shell out to support all of these mainly private-sector interests.

As Crain’s columnist Joe Cahill forcefully argues in this week’s issue, lawmakers and Team Pritzker may believe they’ve done their jobs if they reach an energy deal in the next few weeks that satisfies each powerful interest group with a stake in energy legislation. But their job is to make good policy for the entire state of Illinois. A bill that drives up electricity costs in Illinois is bad policy.

That’s especially noteworthy as Texas, home to the nation’s fourth-largest city right behind Chicago, struggles yet again with an electrical grid on the fritz. Affordable and reliable electricity has long been one of Illinois’ key competitive advantages. Any legislative step that undercuts that reliability—and doesn’t take into account the needs and concerns of the businesses and residents who will pay for it—is a step down the wrong road, one that leads away from Illinois.

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