Public Service commissioner says AmerenUE needs "a little bit humility"
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Public Service commissioner says AmerenUE needs "a little bit humility"

Date: February 17, 2009
By: Emily Coleman
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 554 and SB 228

JEFFERSON CITY - AmerenUE officials indicated willingness to compromise on its rate plan for financing a new nuclear plant after facing attacks at a second legislative hearing in as many weeks.

In addition to questions from legislators, AmerenUE also faced criticism from members of the state agency that regulates utilities.

Public Service Commission member Jeff Davis told the House Utilities Committee that if a second facility is to be built in Callaway County, the current law prohibiting utility companies from recouping costs associated with construction before the plant is finished will have to be repealed.

However, he also said, "I'm not endorsing the way that Ameren has conducted themselves in proposing this piece of legislation. I think they need to be a lot more up front with you and with the people of the state of Missouri, and a little bit of humility could go a long way in a time when you're seeking to raise people's rates 15, 20, maybe as much as 40 percent in the next few years."

Ameren CEO Thomas Voss testified in a Senate committee hearing last week that rates would increase 10 to 12 percent during the construction phase of the plant and would stabilize or decrease once Callaway II is operational.

Public Service Commission chairman, Robert Clayton, expressed concern that the bill would not allow adequate time for the commission to review whether costs proposed by AmerenUE for the plant's construction were prudent. 

The bill would create time restrictions as short as 10 days on some of the actions and decisions that can be made by the commission.

One section in the bill that drew attention seemed to preclude judicial review of some commission decisions involving the utility. It states, "No court of this state shall have jurisdiction to hear or determine any issue, case, or controversy concerning any matter which was or could have been determined in a proceeding before the commission."

Rep. Jake Zimmerman, D-St. Louis County, said he found parts of the bill "repugnant" and "unconstitutional."

A delegation of Ameren officials said they were more than willing to revise the language of the bill if the intent is not what would actually occur.

In response to criticism on a lack of consumer protection items in the bill that was voiced at last week's Senate hearing, Ameren attorney Tom Byrne referenced different consumer protections that the bill provides.

He said it gives the utility-regulating commission the final decision on whether costs are prudent and even on whether the project makes good economic sense and added that the commission would be given detailed semi-annual reports and could perform audits whenever it deems necessary.

Some -- like Ameren's chief executive -- have hailed the bill as an effective job-creation measure.

At last week's Senate hearing, Voss said expansion of the Callaway County nuclear site would create 12,000 jobs during construction and as many as 4,000 jobs upon completion. 500 employees would actually work at the plant, Voss added.

On Tuesday, former state representative Ed Robb likened construction on Callaway II to "rebuilding Interstate 70 across the entire state of Missouri."

Environmental lobbyists, in turn, questioned whether rate increases would actually create new jobs for Missourians or make financial decisions more difficult for existing businesses by raising utility payments. Kathleen Logan-Smith, a representative with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said many of the jobs created might not be staffed by current Missouri residents.

To that argument state Rep. Gina Walsh, D-St. Louis, countered, "I've worked on these jobs; they do have road crews of engineers; they do have road crews of skilled craftsmen, but they're one to probably maybe every 10 to 20 of the workers that live here in Missouri ... You are saying that the folks are coming from outside of this state when the fact of the matter is many of these people in this room, I've worked with them in this plant, and they've all lived within a 200-mile area of that plant."

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