Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why is this not bribery? Because it’s “Smart Grid” legislative politics

The Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session begins Tuesday, and one of the key issues that will come up will be the fate of the “Smart Grid,” that new technology desired by Commonwealth Edison that they want near-guaranteed rate hikes to pay for its implementation.
JONES: $50 million for LiHEAP is his price

Gov. Pat Quinn used his “veto” power this summer to kill the bill. Or should I say, try to kill it. Because this measure is likely to rise from the dead as many legislators, particularly those who are upset that Quinn won’t go along with their desired gambling expansion plan, are more than willing to vote to over-ride him.

FOR SOME, IT’S payback. They’ll dump on Quinn’s attempt to keep Com Ed in check. Of course, they’ll claim other reasons for it. Some of them will even sound altruistic on the surface.

Take the case of a statement issued Monday by state Rep. Thaddeus Jones, D-Calumet City, who made it publicly known that although he voted against the “Smart Grid” bill during the spring, he is now inclined to vote “yea” when the issue comes up in the veto session.

Now I don’t know that there’s a direct tie for Jones between the Smart Grid and casino expansion bills (although Jones once said he thinks Quinn is looking at gambling in the wrong way – focusing on problems it causes rather than the money it can raise to help pay to fix problems).

But the reason that Jones gives isn’t much better.

HE CITES A “trailer” bill that will be forthcoming during the fall session. In politico-speak, a trailer bill is one that is approved separately from its main bill, but provides for various issues that are related to the original vote.

In this case, the trailer will include up to $50 million in extra state funding for the LiHEAP energy assistance program. State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, told the Chicago Sun-Times that the trailer could get a vote in the state Senate as soon as Tuesday.

That program is one that gets tapped into every winter by low-income people who, because of the excess cold that is a Midwestern winter, run up extremely-high heating bills that they cannot possibly afford to pay off on their own.

The program helps those people pay those bills, thereby assuring that no one gets cut off in mid-winter and dies from the cold. For those who are now going to spew an ideological argument about how government shouldn’t be paying utility bills, figure that government believes that the expense of paying a few bills is better than having to cover the cost of an indigent person’s funeral – or the bad public image of letting people freeze to death.

AND FOR JONES, the idea of the state providing extra money to help cover those costs (particularly since he represents a portion of Cook County filled with suburban communities where the economic struggles of our nation have impacted harder-than-elsewhere) is a plus.

“For that reason, I will vote to support …the Com Ed ‘Smart Grid’ bill,” Jones says, in his statement.

He also points out that he’s not the only former “nea” vote who will flip to “yea” on Smart Grid. It seems that this trailer bill is meant to give a lot of legislators something they desire – in exchange for getting them to go along with the desires of Commonwealth Edison on this particular issue.

Which means they will be able to put the political spin that they brought something back to their home communities – rather than just knuckled under to the utility company. Because if it had to run purely on its merits, I think the negative image Com Ed has in many peoples’ minds is strong enough to kill this issue off for good.

I DO BELIEVE that Quinn tapped into a public sentiment on this issue; which is to say that the ‘Smart Grid’ technology that has the potential to pinpoint outages to their exact location and give repair crews detailed explanations of the problem before crews even get there is a noble goal.

But I wonder how many people don’t trust Com Ed to be able to implement it without significant problems. Which is why they resent the idea that the bill provides for rate increases to pay for its implementation.

Those television commercial spots of recent days that imply the current infrastructure is a century old and too primitive to accommodate our society much longer aren’t going to sway those who don’t trust the utility.

It could be said that the distrust is Com Ed’s payback for years of screw-ups and incompetence.

SO HOW DO the political powers-that-be respond? By making the payoff.

In the case of Jones, his price is $50 million more for the Low-Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program. (although nowhere do I see an explanation of where this money will come from – at a time when so many state government bills are going unpaid).

Other legislators, I’m sure, have their own prices. In fact, I probably shouldn't give the impression that Jones is the only legislator guilty of such conduct.

So if it turns out that the General Assembly does decide to override Quinn on this issue, keep in mind that part of it is meant to embarrass the governor. While the rest is just a good ol’ fashioned payoff – albeit one that is legal and only the most hard-headed of assistant U.S. attorneys would dare to even think of in terms of prosecution.


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