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Senate advances utility rates bill after filibuster

Senate advances utility rates bill after filibuster

February 8th, 2018 by Associated Press in Missouri News

Gov. Eric Greitens, right, responds to reporters' questions during a press availability immediately following Thursday's annual Missouri Press Association luncheon at the Governor's Mansion. Among topics discussed, Greitens said he supports the regulatory reform of proposed legislation could reward utility companies for infrastructure improvements.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

The Missouri Senate on Thursday advanced legislation that could reward utilities making improvements to their infrastructure with more consistent rate increases on their customers, a move that came after a more than 20-hour, overnight filibuster finally ended.

The legislation changing the way utilities are regulated drew intense opposition from some senators who said it would drive up costs for millions of residents and businesses. Supporters countered that rates are likely to rise anyway, and the bill would provide predictability by limiting annual average rate increases to 2.85 percent.

The Senate began debating the bill around 7 p.m. Wednesday and worked more than 20 hours straight until taking an hour pause and then picking up with the filibuster again around 4:15 p.m. Thursday.

After continued delay on the Senate floor, lawmakers broke again to negotiate behind closed doors for several more hours before returning to give initial approval to a compromise bill with a voice vote. Another vote is needed for the measure to move to the House.

While the heart of the bill remained largely intact, opponents stood down after more limits were put on benefits for utilities, including lowering the annual rate cap from 3 percent to 2.85 percent.

"They can use the mechanism, but it protects the consumers from high rate increases," said Farmington Republican Sen. Gary Romine, who was among a small group of senators who led the filibuster.

Gov. Eric Greitens told reporters earlier Thursday at the Governor's Mansion that he was reserving judgment on the evolving bill but supports "regulatory reform" and the efforts of the bill's lead sponsor.

"I think it's going to lead to more jobs and higher pay," the Republican governor said.

The bill would change the way the Missouri Public Service Commission regulates investor-owned electric and natural gas corporations such as Ameren Corp., Kansas City Power & Light Co., The Empire District Electric Co. and Spire Inc.

Such companies currently work through lengthy rate cases at the PSC. When utilities make infrastructure improvements between rate cases, the new facilities began depreciating immediately and the full cost of that capital investment is sometimes not fully recovered by utilities in subsequent rate cases, said Warren Wood, Ameren Missouri's vice president of external affairs and communications.

He said the legislation would encourage infrastructure investment by changing the accounting method for those improvements, although the bill that ultimately advanced was less generous in how much utilities could recover.

"It would benefit our customers with those investments to modernize the grid, and it would allow us to more accurately recover the costs so we could ramp up those investments," Wood said.

Ameren serves 1.2 million electricity customers and 127,000 natural gas customers in Missouri and is a major force at the Capitol. It's donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and political committees over the past few years and registered more than 40 lobbyists for its various subsidiaries.

The PSC approved a 3.5 percent rate increase for Ameren Missouri's electric operations in March 2017.

"The current system that we have that's outdated will allow for unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable rate increases," said Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City. The bill "allows the utilities to perform the maintenance and infrastructure improvements they need to do with a predictable rate for both residences and businesses."

The bill also includes a provision giving the PSC the authority to more quickly lower rates for consumers to account for corporate tax cuts included in a new federal tax overhaul. Republican Sen. Ed Emery, of Lamar, said that provision could result in savings of $100 million for consumers.

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A small group of determined senators tied up the Missouri Senate on Thursday with a filibuster against legislation that could reward utilities making improvements to their infrastructure with more consistent rate increases on their customers.

The legislation changing the way utilities are regulated drew intense opposition from some senators who said it would drive up costs for millions of residents and businesses. Supporters countered that rates are likely to rise anyway, and the bill would provide predictability by limiting annual average rate increases to 3 percent.

The Senate began debating the bill around 7 p.m. Wednesday and worked more than 20 hours straight until taking an hour pause and then picking up with the filibuster again around 4:15 p.m. Thursday.

The opposition was led by Republican Sens. Doug Libla of Poplar Bluff, Gary Romine of Farmington, and Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph. They were joined Thursday by Democratic Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, of University City.

The legislation "will not only raise rates on the little old lady down the street but businesses and industry across the state that provide jobs for our citizens," Romine told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Libla asserted that "money-hungry utilities (are) trying to take unfair advantage" of their customers.

As the filibuster droned on, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens told reporters at the Governor's Mansion that he is reserving judgment on the evolving bill but supports "regulatory reform" and the efforts of the bill's lead sponsor.

"I think it's going to lead to more jobs and higher pay," the Republican governor said.

The bill would change the way the Missouri Public Service Commission regulates investor-owned electric and natural gas corporations such as Ameren Corp., Kansas City Power & Light Co., The Empire District Electric Co. and Spire Inc.

Such companies currently work through lengthy rate cases at the PSC. When utilities make infrastructure improvements between rate cases, the new facilities began depreciating immediately and the full cost of that capital investment is sometimes not fully recovered by utilities in subsequent rate cases, said Warren Wood, Ameren Missouri's vice president of external affairs and communications.

He said the legislation would encourage infrastructure investment by changing the accounting method for those improvements.

"It would benefit our customers with those investments to modernize the grid, and it would allow us to more accurately recover the costs so we could ramp up those investments," Wood said.

Ameren serves 1.2 million electricity customers and 127,000 natural gas customers in Missouri and is a major force at the Capitol. It's donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and political committees over the past few years and registered more than 40 lobbyists for its various subsidiaries.

The PSC approved a 3.5 percent rate increase for Ameren Missouri's electric operations in March 2017.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe said Thursday that he wants to continue pushing toward a vote on the legislation.

"The current system that we have that's outdated will allow for unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable rate increases," said Kehoe, a Republican from Jefferson City. The bill "allows the utilities to perform the maintenance and infrastructure improvements they need to do with a predictable rate for both residences and businesses."

Supporters have offered various versions of the legislation this session. The latest version includes a provision giving the PSC the authority to more quickly lower rates for consumers to account for corporate tax cuts included in a new federal tax overhaul. Republican Sen. Ed Emery, of Lamar, said that provision could result in savings of $100 million for consumers.


Updated Thursday night to reflect the Missouri Senate advancing the legislation following a lengthy filibuster