SPRINGFIELD - Illinois lawmakers on Wednesday gave electric companies the authority to raise rates to produce money for modernizing the state power grid, despite opposition from consumer advocates and an outright veto by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Supporters, including major labor groups, say the measure will create jobs and produce a high-tech smart grid that improves efficiency and helps people conserve energy. They predict rates will climb only $3 or $4 a month for most consumers, who will wind up saving more than that by conserving power.
"Illinois can't afford to move into the future on technology stuck in the past," said Sen. Mike Jacobs, the East Moline Democrat who sponsored the legislation.
Critics, ranging from AARP to the Citizens Utility Board to Attorney General Lisa Madigan, maintain it's a sweetheart deal for power companies Ameren Illinois and Commonwealth Edison. The utilities will be able to raise rates without interference from state regulators for 10 years.
"It is appalling that Illinois lawmakers would choose to further burden consumers with a law that amounts to nothing more than corporate greed," Bob Gallo, senior state director for AARP Illinois, said in a statement.
Legislators approved the measure earlier this year, but Quinn vetoed it. The Democratic governor emphasized his opposition again Tuesday, calling the bill a "smart greed" plan that utilities pushed through with lobbyists and big donations to campaign funds.
The Senate voted 36-19 to override Quinn's veto, the bare minimum needed. The House, without any debate at all, followed a few minutes later with a 74-42 vote. The override votes mean the measure is now law.
Both Democratic-controlled chambers also passed legislation tweaking the plan in an attempt to make it more palatable. It lowers the profits guaranteed to the power companies, toughens the performance standards they must meet and increases the amount they must spend on improving basic infrastructure. Critics dismissed it as window dressing.
The new law authorizes a decade-long $3 billion project, much of which would improve the power companies' delivery systems by installing "smart meters" in all ComEd homes and 60 percent of Ameren Services homes. Proponents say the work would create 2,500 jobs.
ComEd estimates customers would see rates climb about $36 a year, on average. But they say savings created by the smart meters would more than offset the higher costs.
The governor, however, claims that at the end of the 10-year project consumers would pay $408 annually.
Sen. Kyle McCarter, R-Lebanon, rejected the idea that this is a jobs bill. He said it adds a new burden in a state that already hits businesses with high taxes, fees and workers' compensation costs. "One of the last good things we've got going in this state for businesses is affordable power," he said.
The Senate also approved a bill that would let Chicago officials set up cameras to watch for speeding drivers near schools and playgrounds. That would put much of the city in zones monitored by the electronic eyes. It was sent to the House 32-24.
A Senate committee discussed legislation that would expand gambling along the lines Quinn has described as acceptable to him: five new casinos, including one in Chicago, but no slot machines at race tracks. The committee did not vote and the full Senate did not take up the issue. Aides said Senate President John Cullerton hopes to meet with Quinn on Thursday to discuss the issue.
The bills are SB1652, HB3036.