By TOM KACICH
Thursday should be an enlightening day in Springfield when the Senate Energy Committee holds a "subject matter" hearing on what is known as "the Exelon bill."
It's the bill that isn't a bailout for Exelon, isn't a subsidy for Exelon but just so happens to divert approximately $150 million a year from ratepayers in Illinois, ostensibly to keep two Exelon nuclear plants operating and to cap future rate increases.
Because it's only a subject matter hearing there won't be a committee vote Thursday. That just delays a final vote on the bill until closer to the scheduled May 31 adjournment of the Legislature, when the final version of the bill will get even less study and scrutiny and it can be subject to more vote-trading.
Exelon is very good at this game.
"This isn't their first rodeo," cracked Peter Gray, a spokesman for the Best Coalition, a group of business and consumer groups that opposes the bill (SB 1585) in its current form and is sponsoring the web site http://www.noexelonbailout.com.
The legislation is being couched as a way to save hundreds of good-paying jobs at Exelon's Clinton and Cordova nuclear plants, to move Illinois closer to a zero-emissions standard by equating nuclear power with wind and solar power, and to avoid bigger electric rate increases that could follow if those two plants are shut down.
"The concern that everyone has is job loss at Exelon's plants," Gray said. "We feel like they're using that to manufacture a crisis, to put a bill through the Legislature, introduced May 5th, that is 316 pages, and which they say has to be passed by May 31. And there are many things in there that have nothing to do with their nuclear plants in Illinois."
Among them, he and other opponents of the legislation say, is a mysterious new rate design the result of which can't be predicted. There's another provision that would allow Exelon to forecast low prices for its nuclear plant output and then not have to repay the costs if the forecasts prove incorrect.
"We're not opposed to nuclear power. We're not trying to shut down nuclear plants," Gray said. "It's just that (Commonwealth Edison) and Exelon have argued for deregulation and they argued for a free market approach. They're now in the free market and making $2 billion a year but they're saying that a few plants are losing money so they want to shift that risk back onto the public and the ratepayers.
"We think that as a private company it ought to be their shareholders' risk, or maybe someone else would want to buy those plants. They keep saying that power prices are going to come up."
Gray says that employees who work at the nuclear plants "are being dangled out as a bargaining chip."
There's much more in the bill for consumers to dislike, Gray said.
Of course, Exelon and its supporters claim that there's a lot to like. Here's hoping Thursday's committee meeting — the first real discussion of the measure — helps settle some of the arguments.