Erickson: Quinn connects utility money to vote

2011-10-30T12:00:00Z 2011-10-31T16:54:06Z Erickson: Quinn connects utility money to voteBy Kurt Erickson | kurt.erickson@lee.net pantagraph.com
October 30, 2011 12:00 pm  • 

Say what you want about Gov. Pat Quinn, but he said what many Statehouse observers were thinking last week when he lambasted the General Assembly for scooping up campaign contributions from the state’s regulated utility companies as the two electric monopolies were trying to win automatic rate hikes that will appear on the bills for the next decade.

“Legislators who accept lots and lots of campaign donations from utility companies want to write a law to raise the consumer utility bills for the next decade,” Quinn told reporters. “This is a very bad thing.”

For the record, campaign finance watchdogs calculated that ComEd and Ameren doled out more than $930,000 to lawmakers while they’ve been pushing for the so-called “Smart Grid” legislation. That doesn’t count the countless dinners, events and other expenses the utilities have plied on lawmakers since the rate hike push began.

ComEd, for example, has spent over $27,000 wining and dining members of the legislature this year.

“There is no way to put perfume on this skunk,” Quinn said.

Although Quinn raises campaign cash just like the lawmakers, he can be excused from the Utility Gold Rush. State election board records show the governor didn’t raise any money from the utility giants during his 2010 gubernatorial bid.

But the connection between utility money and the General Assembly’s decision to hand ComEd and Ameren nearly exactly what they wanted didn’t go unnoticed among lawmakers.

During a debate in the Senate Wednesday, state Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, continued his assault on the sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline.

Without getting specific, McCarter again suggested Jacobs was influenced in his support for higher rates on consumers by his father, former state Sen. Denny Jacobs, because his dad is now on the lobbying payroll of ComEd.

“We know that money influences votes,” McCarter said.

If you recall, McCarter earned himself a punch — or was it a shove? — from the junior Jacobs last spring after he raised the same point. The scuffle resulted in an investigation into whether criminal assault charges should be filed. They weren’t.

“Influence is an issue. I’m not going to go into what I said last time. But there is a lot of money flowing from the power companies,” McCarter said during a floor speech.

Taking a cue from McCarter, state Sen. Dan Duffy also raised the specter of the father-son ComEd connection again in debate Wednesday, earning a quick admonishment from the presiding member of the Senate.

“Is it a coincidence that a close family member is a lobbyist for ComEd?” asked Duffy, R-Lake Barrington.

This time around, Jacobs kept his poise. Rather than stomp over to Duffy’s desk on the Senate floor, he merely called the comments “inappropriate.”

Despite all the demagoguery over campaign contributions, Quinn never called for an outright ban on campaign contributions from the regulated utilities. It’s not clear why he didn’t go down that path after what he said on Oct. 17, when he came out in opposition to the Legislature’s massive gambling expansion proposal.

“To prevent conflicts of interest, I also ask the Legislature to take the additional step of banning campaign contributions to elected officials by gaming licensees and casino managers, as lawmakers in other states have done,” the governor said. “If we allow any gambling expansion in Illinois, we should do so in good conscience, without the excessive influence of those that may benefit from such an expansion,” Quinn said.

Maybe Quinn knows that asking the General Assembly to turn off the campaign contribution spigot is a losing cause.

The big gamble

The state’s casino owners continued to argue last week that a massive gambling expansion plan percolating in the Capitol would hurt their businesses.

Lobbyists for the state’s casino operators told a Senate panel that a combination of higher taxes and additional competition for the gambling dollar could result in four or five of the existing casinos closing. This brought a lot of arched eyebrows from lawmakers, who asked whether any of the casinos are currently losing money.

“We wouldn’t be in business if we weren’t making money,” answered Jay Keller, who represents Penn National Gaming Corp., owner of the casinos in Alton, Aurora and Joliet.

Remember that next time you feed a dollar into a slot machine.

Kurt Erickson is Lee Statehouse Bureau chief. He can be reached at kurt.erickson@lee.net or 217-782-4043.

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