|Bill allowing Ameren to recoup costs for site permit appears dead this session|| || || |
A bill to allow Ameren Missouri and a consortium of energy companies to recoup the costs of a site permit for a possible nuclear power plant appears dead for this year, according to a St. Louis senator who handled the bill.
The legislation would have authorized utility customers to pay roughly $45 million for an early site permit, which proponents say could pave the way for a new nuclear reactor in Callaway County. Legislative action is needed because of a law approved by voters in 1976, which restricts utility companies from passing along on construction costs to consumers. It's commonly known as CWIP.
The bill had been stalled for weeks but managed to reach the Senate floor Tuesday after maneuvering in committee. But the measure was stymied after Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer ruled the bill out of order. Mayer (right) -- a Dexter Republican who has opposed efforts to alter CWIP in the past -- has the power to quash legislation or amendments if somebody objects to a measure.
The parliamentary jujitsu left proponents pessimistic about the bill's chances, especially with time dwindling in the legislative session. When the bill's handler -- state Sen. Robin Wright-Jones, D-St. Louis - was asked if the push for the site permit was dead, she responded: "For this legislative session until the 13th of May, absolutely."
"I don't think we'll be able to breathe life into it," she added.
SHAKING THE BILL TREE
Tuesday's debate wouldn't have come about without a little bit of strategy.
Earlier in the session, Mayer sent all legislation dealing with the site permit issue to a committee chaired by state Sen. Jason Crowell. Crowell -- a Cape Girardeau Republican who opposed a broader attempt in 2009 to repeal CWIP -- sponsored site permit legislation and added a ratepayer-funded surcharge for the Office of Public Counsel, which represents utility customers and the public before the Public Service Commission. He argued that keeping the agency well-funded would benefit consumers.
While a coalition of consumer groups and corporations supported Crowell's approach, a majority of the Senate's lawmakers cosponsored legislation from state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, without OPC funding. Kehoe and others noted that Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, included an increase for the OPC in the budget.
Environmental groups opposed both bills, saying that nuclear power is too expensive and subject to cost overruns. They also pointed to Japan's nuclear crisis as a reason to oppose the move.
While he held a long hearing in March, Crowell hasn't called a vote on any site permit bill in his committee. But earlier this month, another Senate committee attached site permit provisions to Wright-Jones' legislation on utilities. It was voted out of that committee on a 7-2 vote, which allowed the issue to be debated on the Senate floor for the first time.
Among other things, the measure would have allowed $45 million to be recouped for a site permit; it would also set up a process for ratepayer refunds if the plant isn't built or the permit is sold. The bill would also have lowered a surcharge used to fund the Public Service Commission and set up a separate funding stream for the Office of Public Counsel. The overall surcharge would have remained the same.
Sen. Brad Lager (right), R-Savannah, said the provision in Wright-Jones' bill would have provided around $1.5 million for the OPC, whereas Crowell has said his legislation would provide nearly $3 million for the agency.
"The Office of Public Counsel is the advocate for the consumer," said Lager, who chaired the committee that sent the legislation to the floor, in an interview earlier this month. "If we're going to move forward with the early site permit and continue to move forward with this debate about nuclear power in this state, then we believe that someone needs to be funded well enough to advocate on behalf of the consumer to make sure the decisions being made are in the consumers' best interests."
CROWELL steps in
While Tuesday's debate started with Kehoe and Wright-Jones speaking with lawmakers who supported the bill, Crowell ultimately raised a point of order about how the bill was crafted.
Crowell (right) said on the floor, among other things, that the bill went beyond its initial scope and intent. Wright-Jones' initial bill dealt with deposits required by some utilities -- not the early site permit.
The new bill "introduces new and unrelated material," stated Crowell's point of order. "Nowhere in the original bill does it contemplate a funding mechanism for an early site permit nor is the early site permit related to the original intent of the deposits required by certain public utilities."
Mayer ultimately ruled in Crowell's favor. Wright-Jones then asked for the bill to be laid over, ending debate.
Crowell was unavailable for comment after the bill was set aside.
Irl Scissors, the executive director of Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future, said Mayer's decision was "disappointing." Scissors' group had been pushing Kehoe's version of the site permit legislation without Crowell's OPC funding mechanism.
"Sen. Mayer had a chance to do the right thing by Missouri energy ratepayers and we missed this opportunity," Scissors said.
Asked if Mayer was right by ruling the bill out of order, Fair Energy Rate Action Fund director Chris Roepe said, "That's for the Senate and for their process to decide, not somebody who's a spectator on the outside."
"I respect the Pro Tem's office and the decisions that the leader of the Senate makes," Roepe said. "That's for them to judge and decide, not us."
Ameren Missouri did not return a phone call from the Beacon by press time.
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