AmerenUE utility bill losing time in current legislative session

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 7:22 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 22, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Supporters of legislation designed to help AmerenUE build a second reactor at its mid-Missouri nuclear power plant said Wednesday it's increasingly unlikely the bill will pass this year.

The Senate spent more than 10 hours debating the measure two weeks ago, but negotiations have since been held in closed-door sessions.

A 1976 voter-approved law bars utilities from charging customers for the costs of a new power plant before it starts producing electricity. The bill would let utilities seek permission from the Public Service Commission to add the financing costs for certain types of new power plants onto electric bills before they are operational.

Sen. Delbert Scott, the bill's lead sponsor, said negotiations broke down because of an unwillingness to compromise. He declined to call the bill dead but said it would be difficult to pass such a controversial measure in the three weeks remaining in the legislative session.

"It's increasingly a challenge to get something done this year," said Scott, R-Lowry City.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, who drafted an attempted compromise version, said "it's a pretty reasonable assumption" that the utility legislation will not be debated again this year.

A House committee has approved its own version of the bill, but that hasn't moved either. House leaders, after initially calling the bill a priority, said early in the session they would hold off on debating any utility proposals until after the Senate acted.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon largely has sought to avoid the issue this year. In February, he said AmerenUE should first get the necessary permits before seeking law changes.

The bill was prompted by St. Louis-based AmerenUE's application with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a second reactor at its Callaway nuclear plant, about 25 miles northeast of the state Capitol.

AmerenUE has not decided whether to build the second reactor, but company officials argue that they doubt the company can amass sufficient private capital without repealing the 1976 law.

Ameren planned to hold a Thursday morning news conference in St. Louis about the legislation. A spokeswoman did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday afternoon.

Consumer advocates and industrial energy users contend the legislation would permit utilities to sharply raise electrical rates and would eliminate significant regulatory protections.

Gregg Keller, a spokesman for a coalition of business and senior groups opposing the bill, said members of the Fair Electricity Rate Action Fund negotiated in good faith but could not support a bill that could significantly increase electric rates.

"I think a lot of people have been surprised to the extent to which Ameren was intransigent with regard to their proposed 40 percent rate hike and their desire to strip out these long-standing consumer protections," Keller said.

Keller's organization and AmerenUE have feuded about how much electricity rates could increase as a result of the bill.

Keller and other consumer advocates have used the 40 percent figure, but AmerenUE and its allies argue that rates could rise by just one-third of a percent a year.

Even if the legislation is done for this year, it is likely to return later.

Scott said it's only the first year that lawmakers have dug into the issue, noting that the discussion had "laid a foundation" for the future.

Schaefer said the need for new energy sources is growing because federal efforts to regulate or tax carbon dioxide emissions likely will make it impossible to develop new coal power plants.

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