Utilities and Opponents are Playing Hardball with Rate Reform

by the Editorial Board for the St. Louis Post-Dispatcth

Ameren Missouri’s cherished rate-reform bill, which has sat dormant in the Missouri House since being passed by the state Senate in mid-February, is meeting 11th-hour challenges — and a threat to force full disclosure of all the money spent to pass it. Missouri consumers’ best hope is for Senate Bill 564 to die before the legislative session ends May 18.

Groups representing both residential and large industrial power users have raised significant doubts about Ameren’s claims that it would benefit consumers by capping rate increases at 2.85 percent per year for residential customers and 2 percent for industrial users.

Opponents argue that changes to the way that the state’s three investor-owned utilities calculate expenses would lead to an effective rate increase of 8 percent to 10 percent — or as much as 20 percent in the view of the Consumers Council of Missouri.

In the Senate, despite political dangers from rate hikes in an election year, a few labor Democrats joined the GOP majority to pass the bill 25-6 in February.

The bill stalled while the House considered its own measure. But as the state’s attention turned to the drama of Gov. Eric Greitens’ upcoming trial in St. Louis, legislative leaders quietly pushed this week for the House to pass the Senate bill without amendments. That would enable it to go back to the Senate for final passage without the threat of a filibuster in the session’s last week.

House leaders indicated Wednesday they were willing to break their promise to allow full and open debate, and to push for a quick vote.

In response, Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, drafted a letter to Missouri Public Service Commissioner Daniel Hall to immediately require the three investor-owned utilities to disclose all of their political donations and lobbyist spending since 2014. In February, Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, calculated that the utilities had contributed $900,000 to legislators.

Greitens received about $180,000 from Ameren alone, not counting any undisclosed donations to his “dark money” committee. The PSC can order utilities to disclose dark money contributions.

Even with rate caps in place, SB 564 would allow utilities to potentially make tens of millions more each year from a tool called “Plant In-Service Accounting.” Almost every dollar spent on capital investments could be quickly charged to customers without having to gain PSC approval. Ameren argues that it needs the change to modernize its electric grid, but this accounting tool also would allow it to quickly charge consumers for maintaining the old grid.

Ameren also is holding hostage some $133 million a year in tax savings from the federal tax cut bill that should be returned to customers in the form of a 4.9 percent rate cut. Ameren has done so in Illinois but says Missouri regulators tie its hands. This is not a posture that inspires trust.

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