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Rate hikes imminent

Rate hikes imminent

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chris.lusvardi@lee.net

SPRINGFIELD - Despite threats and election-year promises, Illinois lawmakers left town Thursday after failing to shield customers of ComEd and Ameren from massive rate hikes.

Without action by the General Assembly or the two companies in the coming weeks, it appears that consumers in most regions of the state will see their power bills jump by 22 percent to 55 percent beginning Jan. 1.

"I think the public is going to be outraged," said state Sen. Brad Burzynski, R-Clare.

"It's going to hurt a lot of families across the state," added state Rep. Mike Boland, D-East Moline.

At issue are plans by ComEd and Ameren to raise electric rates when a decade-long freeze on rates expires Jan. 1.

A proposal to extend the freeze for three more years earlier failed in the Illinois House. On Thursday, a plan to phase-in the rate hikes over three years was OK'd in the Senate, but was not taken up by the House before lawmakers left town until Jan. 7.

State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said legislative leaders need to find a middle ground that eases the rate hikes, but doesn't bankrupt Ameren or ComEd.

"What we got was nothing," said Brady.

The failure to get anything resolved generated a flurry of finger pointing.

Although he wouldn't single out House Speaker Michael Madigan for criticism, Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, said it was wrong to support a rate freeze when it might have bankrupted the two power companies.

"For political reasons, individuals played with this issue and that's wrong. That's the wrong thing do," Jones said.

State Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, said both Madigan and Jones deserve blame.

"I think the game that's being played between the speaker and the Senate president is sort of a game of chicken," said Jacobs.

State Sen. Dave Luechtefeld, R-Okawville, focused his ire on Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who supports a rate freeze, but didn't actively lobby for it.

Ameren and ComEd hired armies of lobbyists to fend off the rate freeze proposal, saying it would send both companies spiraling into bankruptcy. Ameren fought the phase-in idea, saying it would cost them $300 million to $400 million in lost revenue.

Ameren Illinois CEO Scott Cisel said Thursday that the lack of legislative action staves off the need for Ameren to take any immediate cost-cutting moves, such as carrying out a threat to lay off workers.

Cisel said the company may ask the Illinois Commerce Commission next week to allow it to phase in the rate hikes over a three-year period.

Madigan said little as he left the Old State Capitol Thursday, but suggested that the rate freeze idea could arise again when lawmakers reconvene in January.

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