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SPRINGFIELD - Key players in the state debate over high power bills emerged from a lengthy closed-door meeting Thursday using a similar - and familiar - refrain.

"We made substantial progress," said House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

"Substantial progress has been made, and we're encouraged by that," Ameren Illinois President Scott Cisel said.

"We made substantial progress to get the issues resolved," said Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago.

That sentiment has been uttered for months as lawmakers work to convince the utilities to compensate Ameren and ComEd customers to make up for the power rate hikes that began Jan. 1.

"I look for negotiations to keep on going," state Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, said March 30. "I am all for them."

So despite the optimism, whether the continuing talks actually mean ratepayers will get any help with their bills this year remains unclear.

Utility executive joins talks

John Rowe, chairman of the energy giant Exelon, joined the talks Thursday and seemed willing to bend to the message being delivered by the powerful legislative leaders, Madigan and Jones.

"All I am authorized to do is concur with what the speaker said," Rowe said as he exited the meeting at the Capitol.

He added later: "Obviously, everybody here wants to go home, so you can read that as well as I can."

Lawmakers can end their spring session only after they approve a state spending plan. But because some refuse to vote for a budget until power bills are dealt with, the gridlock over electric rates complicates already-contentious spending talks.

Top legislative leaders and Gov. Rod Blagojevich have been meeting since Democrats missed their initial budget deadline May 31. While Blagojevich's office has not been represented in most electricity negotiations, he expressed optimism about Thursday's developments.

"Every day you make progress on different things, on different fronts," Blagojevich said. "There is some encouraging news regarding the possibility that we can finally get some rate relief to the consumers across the state."

Thursday's meeting included representatives of the Illinois attorney general's office. They've been asked to review the legality of various elements of the proposals that have been floated, but had no comment Thursday.

For months, lawmakers have threatened to force Ameren and ComEd to cut rates and refund millions of dollars from earlier in the year.

The companies say that move would lead to bankruptcy and unreliable service. Not only that, they say such a move would be challenged and defeated in court, leaving customers with no relief at all.

The Senate has been poised to vote on that measure, but senators only worked Thursday this week.

Meanwhile, what kind of progress has been made in the negotiations has been the subject of speculation throughout the Capitol for weeks.

Lawmakers want more than the $500 million the utilities have already offered - maybe up to a $1 billon or more as well as some plan to prevent steep rate hikes from happening again.

Thursday, the meeting's attendees wouldn't provide any details.

"I'm simply not going to get into the details," Speaker Madigan said. "I'm simply going to say that we made substantial progress but there's work to be done."

Blackwell Thomas contributed to this



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