Illinois Public Media News
Ameren is disputing news reports that its latest filing for electric delivery rates in Illinois amounts to a rate hike.
But spokesman Leigh Morris said some customers would see an increase in delivery rates, but not others. He says this is the first rate application Ameren is seeking in connection with an upgrade of the electric grid --- and he said it's based on a new formula that accepts a lower return on equity and accounts for lower interest rates.
"This is based on actual spending," Morris said. "There's not forecasting involved with this. And this rate case will result in an overall reduction of approximately $19 million. That's an annual number."
However, Morris said customers in Ameren Illinois' Rate Zone Two - the former CILCO territory - will see an increase in rates. He said the other two zones, which serve former Illinois Power and CIPS customers, would see modest decreases in their rates.
But a spokesman with the Citizens Utility Board said there's more to the latest Ameren rate case than an initial change in rates. Jim Chilsen said the Ameren filing also sets the stage for Ameren's rate structure throughout the rollout of the improved electrical grid.
"Consumer advocates need to get involved, and need to make sure that Ameren is sticking to the law and that Ameren is being fair to consumers," Chilsen said. "And this is one of the biggest cases that we'll ever deal with, because it's determining what this formula will be that will determine rates for up to the next decade."
Morris said the rate filing with the Illinois Commerce Commission replaces a rate hike request filed last February. The new filing covers the first $17 million of what will eventually be $625 million in electric grid improvements over the next decade. If approved, the new rates should take effect in October.
Morris said consumers will be able to learn how the rate request would affect their personal electric bills starting Feb. 1. He said Ameren customers will be able to use the online rate estimator at IllinoisRateFaces.com, or call Ameren Customer Service at 1-800-755-5000.
The Indiana House speaker Wednesday called off what would have been the first day of the new legislative session after most House Democrats remained behind closed doors to discuss their response to a "right-to-work" bill pushed by majority Republicans.
Republican Speaker Brian Bosma tried three times Wednesday afternoon to gavel the House into order, but each time no more than five of the 40 Democratic members were on the floor.
Bosma says he'll try to have the House meet on Thursday, but that a Democratic boycott won't lead to Republicans backing off on the measure.
"This summer, economic development experts, the folks responsible for attracting employers here, told us that between a third and a half of employers that are looking to put something someplace are leaving Indiana off the table because we're not a right-to-work state," Bosma said.
House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer says the party's lawmakers will stay out until the GOP meets a demand for more public hearings on the bill.
"We refuse to let the most controversial public policy bill of the decade be railroaded through with the public being denied their fair and adequate input," he said. "What's the urgency? Are they ignoring the public input? They have not made the case to the public that Indiana is in dire need of an anti-paycheck bill."
Last spring, most Democrats spent more than a month in a hotel in Urbana, partially out of protest over the same legislation. Indianapolis Rep. Vanessa Summers, when asked how long her fellow Democrats would remain behind closed doors, replied, "Two hours, 10 hours, 12 hours, who knows?''
Bosma asked her to have Bauer contact him.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
The leader of Indiana's House Democrats hinted Wednesday that party lawmakers may walk out for the second year in a row to oppose the same Republican "right-to-work" bill blocked last year by their five-week boycott.
House Democratic Leader Patrick Bauer told The Associated Press that his caucus plans to meet Wednesday to debate how to handle the GOP proposal that would make Indiana the 23rd state to bar businesses and private unions from mandating that workers pay union fees for representation.
Bauer led the walkout last year. But new fines and lawmakers concerned about re-election in 2012 have made the group wary of another. A few hours before the session started, Bauer referenced the U.S. Senate's filibuster as the minority party's best tool for taking on the majority. He said a similar effort in Indiana would require the vast majority of his caucus to act in unison.
"Here it takes a caucus of at least a substantial minority," he said in an interview.
After Democrats walked out last year, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and his Senate counterpart, Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, passed new fines of $1,000 a day on each lawmaker who leaves the Statehouse for more than three days in a row.
House Democrats could also decide to stay meeting in their caucus room indefinitely, effectively denying Republicans the numbers needed to conduct business without actually leaving the state. It is unclear, though, whether that would be as effective in blocking the "right-to-work" bill.
Bosma said Tuesday he had not taken a tally, but is confident he can lock in the votes he needs to pass the measure.
Indiana's Senate Democrats lack the numbers needed to block the measure in their chamber - Indiana's Senate has no filibuster - where they are outnumbered by Republicans 37-13. Thus the focus has been squarely on the House Democrats.
Bosma and Long set a Friday hearing for both the Senate and House versions of the "right-to-work" bill. The respective measures will move through both chambers simultaneously.
"We have options so that we can react to whatever Rep. Bauer and his team have planned," Bosma said Tuesday.
A last-ditch option for House Democrats is trying to sway at least 10 Republicans to their side. Republicans hold a 60-40 majority in the House and would need at least 51 votes to pass the measure.
The Indiana AFL-CIO has been airing TV and radio ads targeting Republicans who may be vulnerable in the 2012 elections if they vote in favor "right to work." Bosma and Gov. Mitch Daniels have been airing their own ads throughout the state in support of the measure, and the National Right to Work Committee has sent staffers to the state to build grass-roots support for the measure.
Indiana's legislative session will be short this year - it's expected to last until March - but judging by the political tone set before the start of the session Wednesday, the debate will be furious.
The Republican leadership, as well as Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, have already vowed to make so-called right-to-work legislation the centerpiece of their agenda - a move that's already stirred an uproar among Hoosier Democrats. If approved, the legislation would prohibit companies from making employees pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.
The GOP attempted to push the issue through the General Assembly in 2010, but Hoosier Democratic state representatives scuttled debate by fleeing Indiana and holing up in Illinois for more than a month.
Indiana Legislative Insight Publisher Ed Feigenbaum does not expect such a boycott this time.
"I think there will be a number of parliamentary maneuvers that Democrats will employ that will be to their strategic advantage that will show their displeasure," he said.
Those maneuvers could include delays in showing up for quorum calls or otherwise disrupting business without leaving the Statehouse.
Supporters of current right-to-work proposals say Indiana needs such a law to attract businesses. Democrats say the move is an attempt to hurt organized labor and that such laws in other states have driven down wages.
Pro-union supporters say they want to get a jump on the debate and are expected to flood the Statehouse Wednesday afternoon, but they may encounter resistance. State police last week announced a new 3,000-person cap on the number of people allowed inside the Statehouse at any given time.
Unions quickly shot back, calling the limit a move by Daniels' administration to stifle debate.
Republican Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said Tuesday that the rules don't discriminate against anyone, and that the limit is based on public safety concerns. He added that the limits will be evaluated daily.
Aside from union legislation, lawmakers are also expected to again consider a statewide smoking ban, legislation that failed to get past the committee level in 2011. Supporters want such a ban to be implemented in time for the Super Bowl, which will be hosted in Indianapolis next month.
A statewide smoking ban has been sought by Indiana state Rep. Charlie Brown (D-Gary) for years without success.
With no budget to approve, this session is considered the "short session" and must be completed by March 14.
A Champaign police officer is accusing city council members of conducting a 'witch hunt' by seeking an independent review of a June 5 arrest.
Art Miller's comments before the council Tuesday night came three weeks after council members granted city manager Steve Carter the authority to find a firm to investigate the incident. In the police video leaked online, an officer pepper sprayed a college-age African American after he was picked up for jaywalking. The officer also put hands on the neck of the young man in the back of a patrol car. The arresting officer has been cleared of wrongdoing by the Champaign police, Illinois State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Hiring a firm to look at the incident, and the police department's use of force policy will cost $60,000 to $100,000. Miller called the move 'a colossal misuse of taxpayer money' when the city is looking at cuts to the police department's front desk, and he said the council doesn't remind the public of the good work officers do.
"When I chose to answer the call to be a police officer, I knew there was a segment of society that would despise me in what I stand for," Miller said. "But never once did I think I would face such scorn and animosity from officials from the city I work for."
Mayor Don Gerard took exception, citing his comments to the press about officer raises and promotions.
"Every single member of this council appreciates our police department, and I take great exception on behalf of every single one of them for every comment that says: 'nobody ever likes us, nobody ever gives us any praise,' because it's ridiculous and it's nonsense," he said. "We do constantly. Turn on your radio. Read the newspaper."
Gerard also said it's 'tiresome' for him to hear the June arrest has been investigated three times, saying 'it's been investigated zero times' with no interviews conducted.
In response, Miller simply said the mayor has his opinion, and, "I have my opinion. That's the beauty of our country.
Ameren, which supplies electricity to central Illinois, has filed a plan with the Illinois Commerce Commission seeking a rate hike to help pay for an upgrade of its distribution grid.
Vice president Craig Nelson says Tuesday's filing is the beginning of an effort by the utility to modernize the grid over the next 10 years to meet the service expectations of Ameren's 1.2 million customers.
The Illinois Legislature in November passed legislation allowing Missouri-based Ameren and Chicago-based Commonwealth Edison to boost rates with less regulatory oversight in exchange for an upgrade of the electrical grid.
Despite that, ICC spokesman Randy Nehrt tells The Pantagraph in Bloomington that regulators have a responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation of the proposal.
If approved, the rate hike takes effect in October.
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) says banks need to be more transparent as college students start up bank accounts.
In a visit to the University of Illinois' Urbana campus Tuesday, Illinois' Senior Senator called on financial institutions to voluntarily adopt a disclosure form for fees. The announcement comes after Bank of America and other institutions imposed and quickly canceled monthly fees on debit card holders.
Durbin says institutions should all adopt a 1-page disclosure form created by the Pew Charitable Trusts, rather than the more than 100-page statements currently released by most banks. He says the form should be as simple as reading health information labels at grocery stores.
"And you know where to look for calories, for sodium, for carbohydrates, for other things that might be important to you," Durbin said. "This kind of disclosure form brings that kind of information when it comes to financial institutions."
Greg Anderson with University of Illinois Employees Credit Union says the disclosure forms are worth a look.
"What we've seen in the past with truth in lending that he spoke of, truth in savings, the Credit Card act of 2009, all spoke to more disclosure, making it easier for consumers to compare, and credit unions fall right into that," Anderson said. "I think it's kind of a natural for us to take part and follow with that."
Durbin has written a letter to Illinois' State Board of Higher Education as well as the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, asking their help in contacting lending institutions.
Illinois state law already requires home buyers to be informed if the house they are buying has been found to have high levels of radon ---which is radioactive and a cancer risk. Now, that requirement also applies to renters.
Legislation that took effect this week requires landlords to tell prospective tenants if a rental home or apartment has tested for radon above hazardous levels. The testing is still voluntary, and landlords are not required to do anything to reduce high radon levels. But Patrick Daniels of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency said the requirement could still be beneficial, because it could "start a dialog between the renter and the landlord to discuss radon as an issue in rental property."
Esther Patt of the Champaign-Urbana & U of I Campus Tenant Unions said warning prospective renters about high radon levels could influence landlords' actions.
'They still do have this duty to disclose, and could have problems if they're caught not having disclosed," Patt said. "So, one would think that this would motivate at least some landlords who are made aware of radon danger at their property to take actions to eliminate that radon threat."
Landlords are required to inform prospective tenants about hazardous radon levels, whether they have a test done on the rental unit, or if the tenant does the test. But if they take action to reduce the radon danger --- or if a later test shows radon levels are lower, they don't have to tell tenants anything.
The requirement does not apply to apartments on the third floor or above.
Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally from decaying uranium in soil. It's considered the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.
Indiana officials aren't planning any changes to new Statehouse capacity limit that labor unions and others maintain will stifle protests during the legislative session that starts Wednesday.
Indiana Department of Administration Commissioner Robert Wynkoop said Tuesday the 3,000-person cap is meant to ensure the public's safety. He says keeping people out of the Statehouse isn't the intent.
That limit will cap the number of Statehouse visitors at about 1,300 because it takes into account 1,700 people who work there or who have access passes, including about 250 lobbyists.
State Fire Marshal James Greeson says the limit is based on how quickly the building could be evacuated.
The new security policies also prohibit visitors from bringing in cans or glass bottles and signs larger than 2 feet by 2 feet.
This will be an important year for farmers in Illinois and the rest of the country, as Congress hammers out the latest Farm Bill.
The Farm Bill covers everything from crop insurance to programs that help farmers limit pesticide use. No surprise - lawmakers this time around will be looking to cut.
Adam Nielsen of the Illinois Farm Bureau said direct payments to farmers are probably history. Those are subsidies the government paid to farmers even in times of high commodity prices like now.
"There was an enormous target on them and it was the desire of a lot of policymakers out here in Washington to eliminate them," Nielsen said.
But that is not the only thing likely to get slashed. Wes King is with the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which promotes sustainable agriculture.
"Conservation programs are going to take a huge hit," King said.
But King said he is hopeful the new Farm Bill will offer more support to organic farmers as Congress starts to take the sustainable food movement seriously.
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