The Missouri Senate has passed a sweeping bill by a 26-5 margin that would change the way regulated utilities negotiate rates with the state.
The key components of the measure allow investor-owned utilities to invest more than $1 billion in infrastructure upgrades while limiting their rate hikes to customers.
A compromise was reached on the bill’s language after a 27-hour filibuster last week. Before the bill even came up for a final vote Thursday, Senators began arguing after two members who had initially agreed to the compromise let on during floor debate Wednesday that they were unhappy with the final product.
The bickering Thursday began when Republican Senator Denny Hoskins of Warrensburg started asking his colleagues who had backed away from the compromise why they had done so.
When Democratic Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City refused to engage him, Hoskins moved on to a vocal opponent of utility legislation in recent years, Republican Senator Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, who he chastised for breaking the compromise agreement.
“You are only as good as your word,” said Hoskins. “And when you break your word and go against something you had agreed to, I don’t even know what to say.”
Schaaf responded by claiming the bill’s sponsor had threatened to use a technical maneuver to sideline his objections and force a vote if he didn’t agree to the compromise.
“You don’t go and say, ‘Well, we have the votes to sit you down and force a super bad thing down your throat’, and expect that to be called a compromise,” said Schaaf. “It’s not. That’s extortion. That’s where you go, and you hold a gun to someone’s head and say, ‘Give me all your money or I will shoot you’.”
According to Schaaf and several other Senators, Republican Ed Emery of Lamar, the bill’s sponsor, said during the filibuster negotiations that he would use the technical maneuver to force a vote on the bill, even though it was discovered later that he may not have had the necessary votes to ensure the measure would pass during such a vote.
Republican Senator Jeanie Riddle of Mokane asked the presiding president overseeing the floor debate to instruct Schaaf to stop using the term “gun to the head” in light of the Wednesday shootings at a Florida high school, but she was gaveled for speaking out of turn.
After Schaaf and Hoskins finished their hotly contested exchange, Republican Senator Bob Dixon of Springfield spoke for several minutes about how he was troubled by the hostility and combative nature of negotiations and debate over the bill. He urged his colleagues to be civil and respect the voting public.
“I would hope that we can move on,” said Dixon. “And if we can’t have respect for one another, lets, at the very least, respect one another’s constituents.”
Like several other Senators, including Schaaf, Dixon expressed displeasure with a tactic thought to have been used by Senator Emery.
After Dixon finished speaking, Republican Gary Romine of Farmington, another vocal opponent of the bill, suggested the Senate move on to other bills and allow the House to tackle the utility legislation.
Interestingly, the measure approved by the Senate hours later is exactly the same legislation a House committee discussed in a hearing on Wednesday evening.
That bill contains a provision that was added to the Senate version just before it’s final passage.
The “emergency clause” as it was referred to in the Senate, allows the Public Service Commission to cut utility rates through an accelerated process in order to recover and pass on to customers millions of dollars being funneled to the utilities after Congress reduced the corporate tax rate from 35%-21% in January.
Ameren Missouri customers will see a drop in their rates within 90 days, reflecting a total of more than $100 million annually that the company would have otherwise realized from the corporate tax cut.
Among the contentious provisions in the utility bill is a complex mechanism known as Plant In Service Accounting (PISA) which allows the utility to go back in time when accounting for costs.
Two other provisions are opposed by watchdog groups such as St. Louis based Consumers Council.
One, called “decoupling”, discontinues the practice of charging customers based on their utility usage. The other offers a 40% discount to some of the largest utility users, typically industrial plants.
The bill allows the utilities to spend large sums to upgrade their power grids, while it also caps rate hikes to consumers at 2.85% per year.
The legislation, if passed by the full General Assembly and signed by the governor, would apply to investor-owned utilities in the state, namely Ameren Missouri, Kansas City Power & Light and Empire District, as well as St. Louis based natural gas provider Spire Inc.