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Key lawmakers say deal is near on Illinois electric relief


Springfield, Ill. – Key Illinois lawmakers are promising that the monthslong debate over consumers' soaring electric rates is nearing an end.

Growing pressure in an overtime legislative session and a key meeting of legislative leaders and utility executives last week have set up a possible agreement on relief for consumers that could be finalized this week, legislators say.

Key negotiators refuse to discuss how much money customers would see or how much rates would decrease. But lawmakers involved in the talks say discussions have centered on about $1 billion in relief over four or five years and long-term measures to protect consumers from high prices in the future.

Legislators say they're encouraged that the long electric rate debate may soon end.

"It's sounding pretty good to me," said Sen. Gary Forby (D-Benton). "We just need something done."

Downstate lawmakers have been calling for relief since January, when a 10-year rate freeze ended and some residents' electric bills doubled or tripled. But the issue has been bogged down by policy and political differences.

House Democratic leaders have backed another rate freeze to help consumers, while Senate Democrats have argued a rate freeze will only be tied up in court. They support using negotiations with the utilities to produce significant relief for consumers.

The debate has taken center stage at the Capitol because downstaters have said they won't vote on any new state budget until they get a resolution on this issue. As the weeks of overtime session drag on, pressure builds to resolve both issues.

In fact, senators are poised to send to Gov. Rod Blagojevich a rate freeze already passed by the House if negotiations don't produce a resolution soon.

Talks were plodding along until last week, when House Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Emil Jones met privately for more than three hours with top executives of Ameren, ComEd and Exelon Corp., ComEd's parent company and a top Illinois power generator.

Leaders were tightlipped after the meeting, saying only that they had made "substantial progress" but there was more work to be done.

Madigan said it would be several days before an agreement was reached. "I'm confident about resolution of the issue," Madigan said. "I'm not going to go beyond that."

Sen. James Clayborne, the Belleville Democrat leading Senate Democrats' work on the issue, said Monday that lawmakers continue to meet on the issue but he didn't expect a vote when the Senate returns Tuesday. The House is scheduled to resume work Wednesday.

"We're trying to put all of that together," Clayborne said. "Every day I'm hoping we have a solution."

Other lawmakers say they expect consumers to receive about $1 billion in relief from the utilities, both through rebates of increased rates they've already paid and discounts of future rate increases.

They also say the auction process used to set the new rates would be scrapped and a new Illinois Power Authority could be created to oversee power purchasing, ensuring Illinoisans receive the lowest possible cost from the market.

Consumer advocates say consumers will be rewarded for a little more patience.

"We've been encouraged for a long time about how the session has developed," said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. "All the signs are promising."

Some lawmakers say they're remaining cautious until they see an agreement, adding their constituents are eager for a speedy end to the waiting. They say their "It's like a marathon but it's the kind of marathon where you don't know where the end is," said Rep. John Bradley (D-Marion). "There's just so much uncertainty. That's hard for people."