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Ameren, grilled by Illinois lawmakers, offers concessions

By Amanda Vinicky, Illinois Public Radio . AP


Springfield, Ill. – Illinois lawmakers met in a special session on Tuesday to hear complaints from customers over unexpectedly immense increases in their electric bills.

Ameren executives, meanwhile, tried to quell the anger by offering concessions.

But just because lawmakers say more has to be done, that doesn't mean it will be. Illinois Public Radio's Amanda Vinicky prepared this report.

Cisel says the plan offered Tuesday, much of which needs approval from the regulatory Illinois Commerce Commission, would give $20 million in rebates to residential customers that use the most electricity.

It also would give customers more payment options, provide more money to help the poor pay their bills and delay until April 1 any service cut-offs for customers who can't pay.

"We have listened to our customers and to you about the real-life impact of the new electric rates and have come forward to do all we can to assist while still maintaining our financial credit rating," Cisel told lawmakers.

Ameren's announcement came after southern Illinois lawmakers pleaded with their colleagues to roll back electric rates as the House convened in a rare "committee of the whole" where the focus was on bills that have doubled, tripled or more for downstate customers of Ameren.

Randy Huckelberry of Carrier Mills said his bill went from $220 a month to $870 a month. "You need to wake up and listen to us," he told lawmakers.

Ellie Dorchincez, who owns a grocery store in Benton, said her store's bill has jumped from $800 a month to $1,800, and her home bill rose from $230 to $700. She pleaded with lawmakers to step in.

"My whole life is at stake," Dorchincez said. "It rests on your shoulders, not on mine."

Some legislators greeted Ameren's new plan with skepticism. Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said he and his constituents feel deceived after seeing bills increase much more than expected.

"I don't know when to believe you folks," Eddy said. "You better come up with something better, because this isn't good enough."

Other lawmakers called the company dishonest, while the Citizens Utility Board said the plan was "not enough by any means."

Electric rates jumped last month after lawmakers allowed a 10-year freeze on prices to expire. Ameren predicted its customers would see an average increase of roughly 50 percent, but some report far bigger jumps.

"We are in calamity. Southern Illinois is in crisis," said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion. "Roll back the rate. Put in the rate freeze and save southern Illinois."

The House heard from dozens of state and local officials, consumers and advocacy groups. The goal was to find out why increases were so much higher than predicted and what, if anything, could be done.

Residents were warned for months that electric rates would go up in 2007, as the 10-year rate freeze expired. Lawmakers froze rates in 1997 as part of a plan to deregulate the industry and allow competition to develop. But competitors that might have driven down electric rates never entered the Illinois market.

Lawmakers last fall considered extending the rate freeze or phasing in higher rates over several years, but they ended up taking no action. The higher rates took effect Jan. 1.

Lawmakers find themselves in a difficult political position this spring. The hearing gave them a chance to show angry constituents that they're serious about the problem, even as the bills continue to arrive in mailboxes.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said consumers were victimized by the system set up by the Commerce Commission last fall to set the new rates.

He wanted to extend the rate freeze, but Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago, favored phasing in the rate increase over several years. Neither plan passed last year, so the full increase took effect in January.

Republicans called on Gov. Rod Blagojevich to get involved, and urged the Commerce Commission to meet soon to take emergency action.

ICC officials said they would look at having a hearing soon but cautioned the regulatory process likely would take months rather than days.