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GOP lawmakers: Angst over rising electric bills demands legislative action

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There's already a lot of consumer angst about rising electricity rates in central Illinois. Ameren Illinois said the average bill for households in this part of the state could rise by $500-600 this year. And when there's that much pain and that much stress, lawmakers get calls.

The spring session of the Illinois legislature ended before the big electric bills arrived. But lawmakers at a McLean County Chamber of Commerce briefing Tuesday at Illinois State University said they expect utility rates will be the big thing during the fall veto session of the General Assembly.

"I think what's going to happen is there's going to be a significant sticker shock. And we need to have found some viable solutions that could work," said State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington.

Rates have gone up for a number of reasons. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has affected the global energy sector. There's more demand this year as businesses ramp up after the pandemic. Suppliers under estimated the amount of demand. And inflation is part of it.

Barickman said it's a perfect storm that includes some policy choices people in his line of work have made.

"The focus in Illinois on things like wind and solar came at the expense of things like fossil fuel plants and coal and more traditional sources, sometimes nuclear," he said.

Supporters of the green energy jobs act said emphasizing solar and wind power is the way of the future. Yet State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, said whether that's true or not, those aren't the only power sources out there.

"When I first came in the legislature, we put a lot of money into re-working coal-fired plants to make them more energy efficient, clean coal. We invested in that technology and then it was put on the shelf for the most part. We should look at something like that to come back if it's as bad as they say it's going to get for the summer," said Brady.

Another state senator said things already are so bad in southern Illinois that power companies have started asking farmers and big ag producers that have emergency generators for things like drying corn to hook them up to the grid to provide a little extra juice and maybe head off outages and brownouts.

Sen. Sally Turner, R-Lincoln, said the price hikes are also uneven in Illinois.

"Certainly, the Ameren customers are going to be facing those difficulties. But some of the Comed people that are in northern Illinois and Chicago area are not going to see price increases," said Turner.

Historically, Illinois has had relatively low energy prices because of a strong nuclear fleet and a diverse energy portfolio. But the three GOP lawmakers said Illinois needs to look at what other states are doing to assure an adequate supply of electricity. Turner said a legislative study will not only gather that information, it will show constituents lawmakers are paying attention.

"We need to create a task force and we need to find out what are the energy sources? What are the problems? What do we need to meet supply and demand?" said Turner.

She said there was a bill to create just such a task force last spring, but it was not allowed to see the light of day. After this summer's electric bills, she hopes it just might see that light in the fall.

The lawmakers who represent Bloomington-Normal also said the legislature left a key thing undone during the spring session. Brady said he objects to use of pandemic relief money in districts instead of paying back the state unemployment compensation fund that was drained by COVID shutdown joblessness.

"When business needs help, when our schools need help, when individuals need help, the idea that we can spread it around to pet projects was insulting," said Brady.

The state did use some of the federal money to pay back the unemployment reserve fund. But there's still a couple billion left to replace.

"That gap will be filled in the future. And it's going to come from one or two places — either higher taxes on business or lower benefits to employees who are unemployed, neither of which are good options," said Barickman.

Turner said most states used federal relief to pay back the amount they owed their unemployment funds.

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