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More automatic electric rate hikes? Quinn needs to flip the switch

By: Steve Daniels |

The Illinois Senate today overwhelmingly passed a two-year extension of the smart grid law that permits Commonwealth Edison and Ameren Illinois to hike electricity delivery rates annually via a formula.

The 40-4 vote sends the bill, which authorizes formula rates through 2019, to Gov. Pat Quinn. Though the utility-backed legislation passed by veto-proof majorities, it may die anyway.

If Quinn, who vetoed the original smart-grid bill in 2011 and has vetoed changes to benefit the utilities since then, rejects this two-year extension, it may not get an override vote before the next General Assembly convenes in January. That would start the legislative process all over again.

The reason: Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan on Dec. 3 adjourned his chamber for the remainder of this session. The Senate adjourned today as well, although Senate President John Cullerton left open the possibility that senators could return before the next General Assembly.

Quinn hasn’t stated his opinion on the smart-grid extension, which emerged in early November just before lawmakers convened for their annual veto session.

Ameren, which delivers electricity to most of the state outside of northern Illinois, has been the primary force behind extending the smart-grid law. The company has said it needs two more years of formula-rate authority to secure financing for grid improvements and smart meter installation downstate.

ComEd supports the measure as well. The Illinois AFL-CIO and unions representing utility workers are backers.

Consumer advocates oppose the bill, saying it’s too soon to extend the law without knowing more about how it’s benefited ratepayers.

If the bill doesn’t become law before mid-January, smart-grid issues are likely to be caught up in next year’s broader and more controversial energy legislation that, among other things, is expected to raise electricity rates statewide to keep ComEd parent Exelon from closing money-losing Illinois nuclear plants.