3/05/15 - CRAIN'S: Why isn't Exelon's nuke-bailout bill generating the usual juice in Springfield?

By STEVE DANIELS

Things aren't proceeding in Springfield as they usually do when Exelon, one of the state's most politically potent corporations, really wants something.

Exelon's initiative to hike electricity rates for most customers in the state—a deal that would pump in hundreds of millions to its six Illinois nuclear plants—surfaced only today in the state Senate. That's a week after the company held a press conference in Springfield to unveil its long-awaited financial rescue proposal—an unusual lag between making a bill public and its formal introduction.

SPONSOR OR NO?

At the time the bill debuted, energy industry observers expected that Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, the new chair of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee, would sponsor the bill along with the top Republican member of the panel, Sen. Sue Rezin of Morris. The committee has jurisdiction over Exelon's bill.

Indeed, Exelon's Feb. 26 release quoted Hunter extolling the bill's virtues. “With a 70 percent carbon-free energy standard, this legislation would make Illinois the national leader in ensuring a clean energy future—even ahead of other environmental leaders like California,” the release quoted her as saying.

Hunter and Rezin were the only state senators quoted in the release. On the House side, the only lawmakers the release quoted were Larry Walsh, D-Joliet, and Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, the lead sponsors in that chamber.

Now, however, the bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, a longtime Exelon supporter, instead of Hunter. Trotter amended SB 1585, a placeholder energy bill introduced last month by Hunter, with the Exelon language today.

In an interview yesterday, Hunter told Crain's that she doesn't have a position on the Exelon bill. “I haven't seen the language yet,” she said.

And regarding the quote in the release? “That's a lot they had me saying, isn't it?” she said.

She said that she was sick last week and that her staff must have approved the wording in the release. “I would say there was a miscommunication,” she said.

Finally, she denied there ever was a plan for her to sponsor the measure.

“I never had any intention of sponsoring the bill,” she said. “Sen. Trotter took the bill so he could concentrate on the issue.”

MORE STATIC

The Senate confusion isn't the only sign that the rollout of Exelon's bill, a year in the making, hasn't gone the way such initiatives normally do when the politically adept company petitions Springfield for something.

In the House, Exelon's bill has attracted 19 sponsors and co-sponsors. The company has added three co-sponsors since the bill's Feb. 26 introduction.

And, interestingly, another energy-related bill being positioned as an alternative to the nuclear-plant rescue—it would boost state investments in renewable power and energy efficiency as the way to address climate change and create jobs—is demonstrating greater support at this point than Exelon's bill. That measure—supported by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and pushed by a new coalition of environmental groups, consumer advocates, clean-energy firms, energy-efficiency providers and labor unions—has 42 sponsors and co-sponsors in the House.

In a statement, Exelon said it “remains confident of broad support for the Low Carbon Portfolio Standard in both chambers of the Illinois legislature because it is a market-based solution that will preserve the state's existing low-carbon energy sources and advance Illinois' position as a clean energy leader. The bill has only just been introduced, and while it has a strong early slate of sponsors and is gaining more supporters every day, it is too early in the legislative process to predict outcomes.”

'SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS'

Talking to Wall Street analysts last month, company executives sounded more confident.

“We anticipate Republican and Democratic sponsors in significant numbers,” Chief Strategy Officer William Von Hoene said on a Feb. 13 conference call.

“There will be adequate support and sponsorship in both houses to run it through the Legislature,” he added.

Despite the underwhelming showing so far in the General Assembly, Exelon recently has demonstrated its lobbying prowess outside of Illinois. Thirteen of Illinois' 18 U.S. House members signed a March 3 letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner and the four legislative leaders in Springfield urging support for a “legislative solution that will allow Illinois' nuclear plants to continue to operate.”

Exelon is pulling no punches in Springfield, either. Earlier this year, it brought John Hooker, the former chief lobbyist for Commonwealth Edison, out of retirement to lobby lawmakers on the nuclear bill, according to state records. Hooker retired from Exelon-owned ComEd in 2012 after more than four decades with the company, earning a reputation as a master cajoler in the halls of the Capitol.

WHY IT MATTERS TO EXELON

Exelon has threatened to shutter three of its six Illinois nukes if it doesn't get financial help from the state. It says the three power stations—in downstate Clinton, Quad Cities and the Byron facility near Rockford—are losing money because of low wholesale power prices tied to persistently low natural gas prices, as well as competition from tax-subsidized wind farms.

The bill it's advocating would hike the average residential electric bill by $2 per month over at least the next five years, creating a $300 million revenue stream that would go to qualified “low-carbon” sources, including nuclear, wind, solar, hydro and “clean coal.” But the bill's language is so restrictive on which sources could bid for the cash that Exelon's nukes are virtually certain to get the lion's share.

Few experienced in the ways of Springfield are predicting that Exelon, with its impressive political track record, won't ultimately win help of some kind. The early, atypical bumps in the process for the company could be just blips.

But, after the November election of Republican Rauner, who has proposed billions in budget cuts to balance the state's budget, a bid to hike electric bills to help a profitable company and preserve jobs in three discrete communities may be a tougher sell than similar Exelon overtures in years past.