Illinois House continues to mull over gas surcharge repeal

(Photo by Rissa Shaw)
Published: Feb. 9, 2022 at 3:01 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - Continuing previous work on the rise in natural gas costs in Illinois, the House Public Utility Committee looked over legislation that would repeal a legislated surcharge one year early.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow gas companies to add a surcharge to their bills in order to finance a long list of infrastructure improvements. The list includes updating and upgrading current utility systems.

Consumer and energy advocates argued this legislation was a mistake because it allowed utility companies to bypass the oversight of the Illinois Commerce Commission since the proposed expenses were already approved by law.

“The way the reviews work, the utilities tell ICC ‘this is our plan for spending, this is what we’re going to spend on, this is what we’re going to spend up to,” Director of Governmental Affairs with the Citizens Utility Board Bryan McDaniels said. “Now, because (the General Assembly) understand the separation of powers, (the GA has) already passed this law in 2013 that lays out - it’s got paragraphs of what they’re allowed to spend on.”

“The ICC review isn’t much of one,” he continued.

They argue so long as the legislation stays in place it prevents “meaningful” review and oversight from occurring. The repeal would make utility companies have to get more oversight and review when proposing spending and rate plans. Without action from the house, the current law would automatically be repealed Dec. 31, 2023.

Industry officials present at the committee argue the commission does have oversight powers, but the continued rises come from necessary investments to keep services up and running.

“The proper investments are being made and there is strong oversight by the ICC,” Eric Kozak of Ameren said.

However, Rep. Maurice West II (D - Rockford), expressed concern that the current spike in rates affects Black and Brown residents disproportionately. He was inspired by his own rise in utility costs, saying in December of 2021 he saw a larger bill than expected.

“Black and brown communities have these surcharges that they have to choose either pay their heating bill to stay warm and go hungry or fill their bellies and be cold,” West said.

“I considered having a payment plan for my own bill, and if I had to do that, I know others are thinking of that as well,” West continued.

Ameren, People’s Gas, and Nicor said they have payment plans available for low-income customers, which they are required to provide by law. Additionally, they attribute the uptick in cost for consumers to the rising cost of natural gas.

“We will work and do anything we can with a customer who is struggling,” Pat Schillinger of People’s Gas said.

Data from the Community Organizing and Family Issues group shows that consumers in Garfield Park, Austin, Wood Lawn, South Shore, Englewood, and other majority-black communities have a significant percentage of customers behind on their payments by a month or more. COFI representative Karen Lusson argues that shows an issue of affordability in natural gas.

“Energy affordability is a racial justice issue,” Lusson said.

The bill did not move out of the committee, but it may get voted on in the coming weeks.

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