Onmibus utilities bill passes, sent to governor

It came down to the wire amid end-of-session friction, but a large utilities bill received final approval Thursday from the Missouri Legislature.

Senate Bill 745 is a wide-ranging bill that began with language that would allow electrical corporations to defer differences between state or local property tax expenses in a company's tri-annual general rate adjustment case before the Public Service Commission (PSC), the state's investor-owned utility regulator.

By the time the bill made it to the House floor for passage Thursday morning, the bill had ballooned to exclude hotels and other accommodation establishments from sales tax on for utility purchases, a sales tax exemption for Missouri businesses of solar power equipment and changes to discount percentages for electric customers depending on the size of a customer's power load.

The bill would also create task forces on net metering -- which allows energy customers who generate their own power, typically through renewables, to use it any time rather than just as it is generated -- and local taxation of solar energy systems. The task forces would be required to conduct hearings and research and submit reports to the General Assembly by the end of 2022 and 2023, respectively.

Another portion would allow utilities to apply for rate adjustments with the PSC outside of the three-year general rate cycle. The company could request periodic rate changes or to defer and recover expenses from the depreciation of its electric plants.

Among the myriad of changes was a provision that would allow rural electric cooperatives to apply for the Missouri Disaster Fund to offset financial burdens during state emergencies, a benefit that is currently limited to local governments.

"While it shows up there that this is a Senate bill, this in fact is eight House utility bills," House handler Rep. Michael O'Donnell, a Republican representing St. Louis, said while presenting the bill on the House floor Thursday morning. "There was language and discussion and negotiations that came from the Senate, some very intense negotiations."

O'Donnell led the discussion with an amendment that would allow utility companies that issue bonds to offset the cost of switching from coal-based power generation to clean energy, a process known as securitization, to retain some of its coal-based generation assets. This would allow utilities a backup generation source to continue providing service to customers in the case of extreme weather.

This change saw support from across the aisle, with Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis, and was adopted quickly thereafter.

"We don't want it to be some big fancy coal-fired plant that's up 100 percent of the time full of employees or anything. Ultimately we're going to be paying for it in the rates, whether it gets used or not," McCreery said. "I want there to be an emergency backup of coal or whatever we have for emergencies. ... It's a good consumer-protection compromise with the Senate."

The other addition amended the sales tax exemption for businesses to include companies making purchases to construct solar infrastructure for commercial power production.

Despite a large stack of amendments in the queue, half of those considered on the floor were nixed. An amendment that would have required water towers to be installed at a distance of two and half tests length from the nearest residential line was voted down after members expressed concern over the possibility of the bill going to a conference between the House and Senate over controversial provisions. Members noted the risk that came with scheduling a bicameral conference with so many bills in flux and time running out in session.

Three other attempts were withdrawn, one over the same concern, one because it had yet to be vetted in any committee as its own standalone bill and the other because of backlash from other members.

Rep. Don Rone, a Republican representing Portageville, brought an amendment to the floor that would remove a section of the bill that would add customer usage and billing records to the list of records closed under Missouri's Sunshine Law. While other members balked at the proposal, Rone said the amendment was a response to conflicts with the Senate as well as the upper chamber's sluggish pace.

"I have no idea what's in this amendment," Rone told his colleagues. "It's time that we do something on this end that affects that end instead of that end always winning. You're gonna see me stand up between now and the end of the session many times doing this."

Rone withdrew his amendment at the urging of other lawmakers.

The lower chamber ultimately passed the bill by a vote of 99-41.

Despite the friction between the two sides of the building, the bill returned to the Senate shortly thereafter and became the eighth bill to receive the final stamp of approval from lawmakers this year.

Jackson County Republican Sen. Mike Cierpiot, the bill's original sponsor, supported the changes made in the lower chamber.

"There was a tightening of what was exempt from solar taxes; this makes it so it's less costly," Cierpiot said. "It's language that everybody agreed to, so that little tweak was outside of this body but well within the confines of the bill."

Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis County, spoke briefly on the bill before the final votes, noting the measure was backed by several investor-owned utilities including Ameren Missouri, the investor-owned utility covering the Jefferson City area.

"The sponsors of the major pieces of this bill were willing to work with me to make some changes and those are important, and I think that they benefit our customers to a degree," Schupp said. "Essentially what it will also do to every one of our consumers back home is to raise their rates at a time when costs are high anyway."

Despite those concerns, the Senate truly agreed and passed the bill 28-4.

The bill now heads to Gov. Mike Parson's desk for his consideration.

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