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ICC launches Ameren investigation

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SPRINGFIELD - Ameren will be back in the cross-hairs of state regulators today.

The Illinois Commerce Commission is poised to launch an investigation of the company's response to the massive winter storm on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 that left more than 235,000 homes without power.

At the same time, ICC members also likely will decide whether the company can offer customers a phased-in rate hike plan that could temporarily ease the pain of soon-to-rise power bills.

The action by regulators comes as the company is fighting with state lawmakers and consumer groups who want to block a Jan. 2 rate hike that will bump up electric rates across Illinois by 22 percent to 50 percent.

The St. Louis-based utility has asked regulators to approve a plan that would give customers the option of phasing in the rate hike.

Ameren customers would see increases of 14 percent in each of the next three years. But they also would have to pay interest charges of 3.25 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville, is among those backing Ameren's phase-in plan. He said customers cannot absorb 40 percent or 50 percent increases in their power bills. But he also said Ameren needs the extra cash to guarantee reliable service.

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"We do not want to see a replay of the rolling blackouts and skyrocketing electric rates which hit the state of California a few years ago," Watson said.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said neither Ameren nor ComEd, which serves much of northern Illinois, should be allowed to raise rates.

Rather, Madigan wants lawmakers to extend the current rate freeze for three more years until more competition for electric service develops in Illinois. But lawmakers don't return to action until Jan. 7 - five days after Ameren is set to boost its rates.

In addition to the ICC investigation, state lawmakers also have called for their own inquiry into Ameren's storm response. Those hearings, however, wouldn't begin until next month at the earliest.

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