Independent energy group involved in Missouri Senate races

Sunday, July 29, 2012 | 3:56 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — An image of smoke drifting from a light bulb sits next to a warning that if one state Senate candidate gets his way, "Higher Energy Rates Will Burn Missourians Again." By contrast, an opponent represents "Award-Winning Leadership for Missouri Consumers and Businesses." Elsewhere, a Senate hopeful is described as having fought "unjust, excessive rate hikes."

The recent political pieces point to a variety of utility issues that Missouri has faced during the past several years. All seem designed to sway the outcome in some state Senate primaries that will be decided Aug. 7, but the commentary is not the direct handiwork of any candidate. So from where exactly is it coming?

Statements on fliers in two Senate races indicate they are funded by an independent group called Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates. And while involvement in Missouri General Assembly campaigns by a third-party organization is an interesting twist, there is more to the story.

Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates was created in 2009 by the political consulting firm of former Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton. It fought against legislation allowing utilities to ask the Public Service Commission for permission to charge customers for the financing costs of certain types of new power plants while the facilities still were under construction. A 1976 voter-approved law requires utilities to wait until a plant starts producing electricity before charging customers.

St. Louis-based utility Ameren Missouri, which was considering a second nuclear power plant, supported the bill. Noranda Aluminum Inc., a smelter in New Madrid and significant energy user, fought against the idea. A company leader testified against the legislation at the state Capitol, and campaign finance records show Noranda plugged in $78,570 to Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates on April 3, 2009.

Nearly all that money was used for expenses — postage, printing, voter ID and "tele-town halls," in which people were called and asked to stay on the line to discuss the legislation with an expert. One direct mail piece included various news accounts of the energy debate, names of other groups who opposed the bill and a warning about increased utility rates. In addition, it stated Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates paid for the mailing.

Ultimately, the 2009 energy legislation stalled.

About a year later in May 2010, Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates received another $1,000 from Noranda. But after that, the political organization seems to have gone dark with minimal fundraising or expenses. The group reported receiving no contributions from April 1 through June 30 of this year and spending just $5 for a bank fee. At the start of July, it claimed $429.21 in available cash.

Then, the committee suddenly revved up before this year's primary election, reporting a $275,000 contribution this past Monday from Missourians for Low Energy Costs.

And that is where the trail goes cold.

The nonprofit Missourians for Low Energy Costs was organized July 19 — days before the contribution was made — and there are no campaign finance reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission to explain where it got its money. Records from the Missouri secretary of state's office show the address of its incorporator is the same as a St. Louis law firm.

In early July, Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates reported a new treasurer and a new address, both sharing the same Jefferson City post office box. Calls placed to a phone number shared by the treasurer and the committee went unanswered other than a recording that said a voice mailbox had not yet been set up.

A Noranda executive did not return a call.

Campaign pieces from Missourians Against Higher Utility Rates have appeared — at least — in St. Louis and in western Missouri. Both Senate contests feature a candidate who supported the 2009 legislation or a separate 2011 measure that would have allowed power companies to recoup costs for obtaining a federal early site permit for a possible nuclear power plant.

The energy politicking follows a pattern that has emerged before in other campaigns: An independent political committee required to disclose finances receives campaign contributions from a corporation that allows individual donors to remain anonymous. Those twists and turns make it lot harder to know who is trying to influence the race.

Chris Blank has covered state government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisBlank2.

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