Lawmakers: Defeat of ‘water surcharge’ may not affect electric version

Students walk around the filtration tanks on July 27, 2012, at Missouri American Water Company during a tour of the Jefferson City facility. Steve Ridenhour led students from Lincoln University’s Water Boot Camp on the tour.

Students walk around the filtration tanks on July 27, 2012, at Missouri American Water Company during a tour of the Jefferson City facility. Steve Ridenhour led students from Lincoln University’s Water Boot Camp on the tour. Photo by Julie Smith.

Several state senators said Wednesday they’re not sure if Tuesday afternoon’s defeat of a proposed law affecting investor-owned water companies will have any effect on a similar proposal for electric utilities in Missouri.

Both proposals would allow a regulated utility to add a surcharge to customers’ bills, for the costs of making infrastructure repairs — even before the Public Service Commission has held a full examination of the company’s rates.

The proposals, if passed, would affect customers statewide, including the Jefferson City customers of Missouri American Water Co., and Ameren Missouri for electricity delivery.

“I think (Tuesday’s vote) definitely shows that the hill is steep” for the electric surcharge issue, Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, told the News Tribune Wednesday afternoon.

Lager sponsored the Senate’s water surcharge bill, and said the House-passed version still could be debated and passed in the Senate — if several colleagues get their questions answered.

Lager’s bill would have expanded the water surcharge statewide. It has been in effect in St. Louis County for 10 years.

Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, said Tuesday he was unhappy that supporters had not given him details of the surcharge’s St. Louis County history.

“We don’t have the data from 10 years of experience to prove that this is an efficient program,” he said.

And Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, complained the surcharge process is “circumventing the oversight of the PSC.”

The surcharge is known as an “ISRS.”

Libla noted ISRS originally meant “infrastructure system replacement surcharge, now you have ‘infrastructure strengthening and regulatory streamlining’” — supporting his argument that the surcharge process is a way for utilities to have less PSC control.

“They’re already making hundreds of millions of dollars. Take a look at their executives’ pay. Take a look at their dividends,” Libla told the Senate. “They already have the golden goose, and now they want to eat the golden goose. ...

“I’m from business, and I think profit’s a good thing — but I don’t think you need to be doing it on the backs of the ratepayers. You need to do your own investments.”

Sen. Dan Brown, R-Rolla, also questioned the water surcharge proposal.

“I think there’s a different group of individuals in-play (on the electric bill),” Brown told the News Tribune. “Some people might have said that was a test vote, but I don’t know that that’s true.

“I think people are just really concerned and are being really cautious and careful about giving monopoly utility companies an open checkbook.”

Lager said those kinds of comments are “electric ISRS issues,” but send a “very, very candid” message to supporters about the hurdles they’ll have to overcome to move an electric ISRS forward.

Needing at least 18 votes to pass, Tuesday’s vote on the water surcharge measure was close — 16 for and 17 against, with one lawmaker out of the chamber when the vote was taken.

Warner Baxter, Ameren Missouri’s CEO, was in the Capitol Wednesday talking with lawmakers.

He said it would be premature to predict what impact, if any, the water surcharge vote would have on the electric companies’ proposal.

And Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City and sponsor of the electric surcharge proposal, agreed.

“The larger discussion is, who is going to determine our energy policy ... and what it can do for economic development, and what it’s going to do for Missouri’s future?”

Still, he said, on Tuesday “the lobbyists won. And, I hope when the (electric) ISRS comes up, ‘reason’ will win, and what’s best for Missouri will prevail.”

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