AmerenUE nuclear plant bill sparks rallies by rival groups

Wednesday, April 15, 2009 | 4:54 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Rival interest groups held competing rallies Wednesday while waging a lobbying effort over legislation designed to help AmerenUE build a second nuclear power plant in Missouri.

A group that supports the legislation brought about 100 union members, college students and small business owners to lobby lawmakers and show their support at the Capitol.

Shortly before that, 16 AARP members formed a short-lived picket line outside AmerenUE's office in Jefferson City in opposition to the legislation.

Neither group fit the profile of a stereotypical rally.

AARP protesters carried signs proclaiming that the bill amounted to a new tax and that "rate hikes are a bad idea in a bad economy." But some of the AARP protesters carried cups from nearby coffee shops and did more laughing and talking than chanting. The opponents moved away from AmerenUE's building after a lone television camera packed up.

Many of the supporters of the legislation wore suits and ties or union T-shirts and quietly listened as lawmakers supporting the AmerenUE-backed legislation explained their case. The supporters, organized by Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, gathered on the Capitol steps outside the governor's office.

The group's executive director, Irl Scissors, said the state needs to find new ways to produce electricity because of possible new federal taxes on carbon emissions.

Borrowing from critics' frequently repeated line that AmerenUE is seeking to pass the financial risk of a new power plant onto its customers, Scissors said that the true risk is doing nothing.

"We're going to put people to work and stimulate our economy," Scissors said. Then, he urged people to "take this Capitol by storm."

Sponsoring Sen. Delbert Scott, R-Lowry City, suggested that supporters of the legislation stand outside his office door Wednesday when critics of the bill were scheduled to meet with him about their concerns.

Ron Sergent, a retired teacher from Columbia who was the spokesman for the AARP protesters, said the organization is worried about higher utility rates and that all of Missouri's utilities could use the legislation to drive up electric rates.

"It's not just about Ameren," Sergent said. "It's about any project."

He said the protest focused on the AmerenUE building — a few blocks from the Capitol and across the street from the Governor's Mansion — because "they're the center of the storm right now."

The role of outside interest groups has played a prominent role during debate over the utility legislation. The political consulting firm of former House Speaker Rod Jetton is assisting one of the bill's critics, and two senators have accused each other of doing the bidding of rival political consultants.

At issue is how new Missouri power plants will be funded. Under a voter-approved 1976 law, utilities cannot start charging electric customers until a new facility is online and producing power.

Missouri lawmakers are considering legislation that would let utilities seek permission from the Public Service Commission to add the financing costs for certain proposed types of new power plants onto electric bills.

That legislation has stalled in the Senate amid worries that it would drive up electric bills for residential consumers and large industrial users such as New Madrid-based smelter Noranda Aluminum Inc.

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