JEFFERSON CITY – Columbia Sen. Kurt Schaefer has rewritten a bill that would allow AmerenUE to raise its electric rates to cover financing costs of building a second nuclear power plant in Callaway County before the plant is complete.
The Senate Commerce Committee passed the bill with a 6-4 vote Tuesday.
The original bill, sponsored by Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, faced criticism from consumer advocates as being "a utility wish list."
Schaefer, a freshman Republican senator, said the substitute should resolve some concerns over a perceived lack of consumer protections in the original bill. The new language would require AmerenUE to repay consumers what they put into the plant plus interest, if the permit or the power plant itself is sold.
"You have some people who are simply opposed to nuclear power. You have some people very legitimately ... opposed to some of the unfairness to consumers in the original bill," Schaefer said. "I think that's been addressed now, and I think when people see that consumers have ample protection that maybe they'll change their opinions on that."
While many senators have said that a nuclear power plant might be the way to generate new base-load energy, some expressed concern over the bill's scope, including changes to the process the Public Service Commission uses when deciding whether to approve rate increases.
The four senators who voted against the motion cited a number of reasons. Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said she didn't see any substantial differences between the original draft and Schaefer's rewrite. Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, said she is concerned about the effect of rate increases on industrial electricity consumers.
Some senators were also frustrated with the path the bill has taken.
"This whole thing has been a fiasco from day one," said Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, who voted in favor of the bill. "Quite honestly, I think this has been handled wrong from the start. When they (AmerenUE) started talking to me last year, it was all about CWIP (construction work in progress). When the bill got filed, it had CWIP in it, but then it had all kinds of other stuff in it. Well, then the barrage started, and then the press started. And now we've got all these damn phone calls — and that's what I'm going to say — damn phone calls and e-mails that just infuriate me to no end ... And it's all the lies and the distortion and all."
Committee chair Sen. Brad Lager, R-Maryville, said he had an agreement with AmerenUE and some of the bills' opponents that neither side would produce commercials until the committee had made a decision concerning the bill. The Fair Electricity Rates Action Fund released a commercial saying the bill would allow AmerenUE to raise rates 40 percent.
"About four weeks ago, Senator Schaefer and I found out they were getting ready to launch these media attacks against each other, against us, etc. We asked them to not do that, to give this committee time to work through the process," Lager said. "Ameren kept their word and kept their side of the deal. The other group didn't."
Members of the Fair Electricity Rates Action Fund include AARP and Noranda Aluminum. AARP Missouri advocacy director Norma Collins said AARP was not part of the verbal agreement between Lager, AmerenUE and industrial consumers.
Many senators, including Schaefer, say they have received hundreds of calls and e-mails on this issue.
"You've got groups telling elderly citizens in Columbia that this is going to cause their rates to increase," Schaefer said. "So, for example, I've gotten hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from residents in Columbia saying, 'This is going to cause my rates to go up' when that's factually inaccurate. This won't affect their rates at all because they have City of Columbia electricity; they don't have Ameren" electricity.
Schaefer said though the bill substitute isn't perfect, it gives the Senate a starting point for debate. The bill will next move to the Senate Rules Committee and then onto the Senate floor. The House version moved out of committee March 3 without being rewritten.