Years in the Making: Emery’s utility bill passes the Senate, heads to House

   

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – After years of trying to advance a grid modernization bill, the Missouri Senate has finally done it.

There’s been much to do concerning this year’s version of the annual utility bill, but after much-heated debate and hours of time spent on the issue, the bill advanced through the Senate with a vote of 25-6, as did an emergency clause.

“The Senate’s 25-6 vote shows just how hard lawmakers worked to strike a sensible compromise that will upend the status quo and give Missouri customers the smart, secure and stable energy policy they have long wanted,” Warren Wood, Vice President of External Affairs & Communications for Ameren Missouri said in a statement. “We look forward to ongoing discussions in the coming weeks to ensure that this important legislation becomes a reality for customers.”

In its simplest terms, SB 564, sponsored by Sen. Ed Emery, would allow electric companies to recoup more of the costs from their customers for making improvements and modifications to the electrical grid. It would do that by allowing companies to be regulated under a different accounting method.

Major provisions of the bill would cap utility rates for five years at a level of 2.85 percent. It also would allow for the rates to be cut by more than $100 million per year by accelerating the process of the Missouri Public Service Commission to make up for the recent tax reform measures mandated at the federal level. That provision, in particular, would be effective 90 days from the passage of SB 564, which cuts the time down considerably, whereas before it would have to be done before the PSC during normally scheduled rate cases, a process that could take years to finish across the state.

“Missouri’s energy policy is old, outdated and simply broken,” said Emery. “Our rates have gone up four times faster than the national average in the past decade. Missourians need energy that is smart, secure and stable. This measure will bring predictability and security to our energy grid without taking any authority away from the Public Service Commission.”

Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said with improvements to the grid, Missouri consumers could save millions, and it would again make the Show-Me State a low-energy-cost state.

“Current rate increases, sometimes at 5 or 6 percent, are hurting businesses and Missouri families who foot the bill,” said Kehoe. “Reforming our energy regulatory environment means families get to keep more of their paycheck. It is a good investment for businesses, consumers, and utilities.”

But passing the bill was no easy task. Last week, the Senate spent more than 24 hours dealing with the bill in an overnight filibuster before coming to a compromise on the language, with many assuming the bill would be third read and passed the following week.

And when Monday came around, it became clear that the compromise was not so final. As the week progressed, the same group of senators that had filibustered so ardently days before rose once again, filibustering to get more changes made to the bill.

Senate utility bill filibuster returns, compromise apparently no longer standing

And it appeared on Thursday morning that Missouri’s upper chamber was in for more of the same as the senators debated the issue once again.

In a heated exchange between Sen. Denny Hoskins and Sen. Rob Schaaf, the war of words continued rising in volume and intensity the longer it went on. Schaaf continued explaining his stance in which he said the filibustering senators had been forced into a compromise, that the compromise was reached with a gun to their head.

“Do you understand the concept of making an agreement under duress?” Schaaf asked Hoskins.

“You talk about duress, what about the rest of us?” Hoskins asked. “We were under duress, Senator.

“Right now, we’re paying the price for PQing you, even though we didn’t PQ you.”

“Why would you want a bill that raises rates on your constituents? I don’t get it,” Schaaf asked him. Hoskins simply replied that he wanted lower rates for his constituents, cybersecurity, and a modernized grid.

But eventually, the Senate managed to get to the business of the day, and a few hours later, the same bill that had sparked so much debate and emotion among the senators appeared for a third reading.

And though the filibustering senators do not like the language, the bill passed, with those same senators pledging to continue pushing for their changes when the bill moves to the House.

Though he was not present due to a surgery, Senate President Pro Ron Richard issued a statement saying that updating the grid would promote job creation and economic growth, while also helping to keep and attract new businesses.

“Low electricity prices means Missouri businesses, including manufacturers, can operate at a lower cost,” said Richard. “Future jobs depend on low energy costs. This bill has the potential to create up to 3,000 jobs across the state, generate $65 million in tax revenue and enable an investment of more than $1 billion in grid modernization.”

Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email benjamin@themissouritimes.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.