Electric Rates

Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton, discusses electricity rate legislation on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Friday, April 20, 2007. Senate President Emil Jones used a loophole Friday to gut legislation that would have cut electric rates for millions of ComEd customers, a move that also cripples efforts to roll back prices in southern Illinois. The maneuver stunned Forby, the sponsor of the rollback legislation and a member of Jones' Democratic majority. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

SPRINGFIELD (AP) — Senate President Emil Jones used a loophole Friday to gut legislation that would have cut electric rates for millions of ComEd customers, a move that also may cripple efforts to roll back prices in southern Illinois.

The maneuver stunned the sponsor of the rollback legislation, a member of Jones’ Democratic majority.

‘‘This is not fair, ladies and gentlemen. I want to tell you right now, it’s not fair,’’ said Sen. Gary Forby, D-Benton.

But Jones, D-Chicago, reiterated his position that a rollback wouldn’t provide consumers immediate relief. ‘‘We must quit giving people false hope,’’ he said.

Ameren Corp., the only utility affected by the bill, said in a statement it was deeply disappointed in the passage of what it considers an unconstitutional measure that is not in consumers’ best interests.

The maneuver came moments after Forby had scored a major victory in his efforts to cut electric prices that surged in January after a 10-year rate freeze ended.

The Senate voted 33-24 to add ComEd to Forby’s legislation to roll back rates charged by Ameren, the major power company in southern Illinois. Including ComEd was widely seen as vital to getting the Illinois House to approve the one-year rollback.

But moments after the Senate voted to add ComEd to the legislation, a Jones ally took the rare step of making a motion to reconsider the vote. Under the Senate’s complex rules, that immediately nullified the previous vote and put the amendment into limbo.

As president, Jones controls whether the ComEd amendment ever emerges from that limbo. Forby was then forced to either push ahead with the Ameren-only measure, or wait and take the chance that Jones would never allow it to come up for a vote again.

Jones has been a stalwart opponent of cutting ComEd rates, saying that might bankrupt the company. He and others argue a rate cut would not mean any actual relief for consumers because the utilities would tie up the issue in court.

Most Democrats were reluctant to criticize their leader, although Sen. Ira Silverstein said he was disappointed by the ‘‘shenanigans.’’

Republicans weren’t so shy.

‘‘This is politics at its worst,’’ said Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, R-Greenville.

‘‘After today, I’m going to have to go home and take a shower,’’ said Sen. Dale Risinger, R-Peoria.

With no hope of getting ComEd back in the bill, Forby opted to call a vote on his original legislation, which applies only to Ameren.

It passed 35-20, but lawmakers agree it has no chance of becoming law.

When the legislation arrives in the House, Speaker Michael Madigan will have it amended to include ComEd and send it back to the Senate, lawmakers predict. Then, when it returns to the Senate, Jones will bury it in the Senate Rules Committee.

‘‘What we’re doing here is playing political pingpong with the citizens of Illinois,’’ said Silverstein, D-Chicago.

Electric rates throughout the state rose by 22 percent to 55 percent in January, after a 10-year rate freeze expired. But some customers, especially in central and southern Illinois, have complained of bills doubling or tripling.

Consumer outrage has sent state lawmakers scurrying since then to find a solution, but they remain divided on how to get there.

The House has twice approved a three-year rate rollback. Speaker Madigan wants to make sure any legislation includes ComEd.

Madigan spokesman Steve Brown called it ‘‘a good step’’ to have a majority of senators on record supporting a rollback that includes ComEd, even though that part ended up being stripped from the legislation.

‘‘Inch by inch, step by step we’re working toward a solution,’’ Brown said. ‘‘I think there’s enough public outcry that the Legislature and the governor will need to act.’’

But Jones opposes cutting rates. Instead, he favors pressuring power companies to give millions of dollars in rate credits and reductions to the hardest-hit consumers.

Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, said he had negotiated more than $150 million in relief from the utilities. But he expects that will be taken off the table now that a rate freeze has passed the Senate because the utilities repeatedly have said they cannot afford to offer such a deal if lawmakers still could cut their rates.

Ameren said the $85 million its consumers would have received under that package was not immediately available but it was ready to resume negotiations.

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The bill is SB1592.

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