Gov. JB Pritzker Takes On ComEd With New Plan For Rates, Ethics

Pritzer proposes ethics reforms after ComEd bribery scheme that allowed the utility giant to win favorable legislation that boosted profits at ratepayers’ expense.

ComEd sign
Illinois governor plans to lay out a framework for a renewable energy package to present to the Illinois legislature in the fall that includes new ethics laws in response to Commonwealth Edison’s bribery-tainted lobbying practices. WBEZ
ComEd sign
Illinois governor plans to lay out a framework for a renewable energy package to present to the Illinois legislature in the fall that includes new ethics laws in response to Commonwealth Edison’s bribery-tainted lobbying practices. WBEZ

Gov. JB Pritzker Takes On ComEd With New Plan For Rates, Ethics

Pritzer proposes ethics reforms after ComEd bribery scheme that allowed the utility giant to win favorable legislation that boosted profits at ratepayers’ expense.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker plans today to lay out a sprawling framework for a renewable energy package he’d like to see the state legislature take up in November, including new ethics laws in response to Commonwealth Edison’s bribery-tainted lobbying practices.

With the outline comes a clear, two-pronged message from Pritzker’s administration that it wants to do away with automatic annual utility rate increases and that another multibillion-dollar bailout for ComEd’s parent, Exelon, for its financially-ailing nuclear plants isn’t a certainty.

“I would say they start with an uphill battle with this administration for the idea that we are going to toss billions of dollars at them with no strings attached,” said Christian Mitchell, Pritzker’s deputy governor and point person on utility matters. “I don’t see a version of the world where that happens.”

The get-tough approach comes after stunning revelations last month in a $200 million settlement ComEd made with federal investigators to end a criminal investigation into the company’s lobbying practices in Springfield between 2011 and 2019.

ComEd was charged with one count of bribery in a case that alleged ties to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan, whom federal investigators identified as “Public Official A.” Investigators said Madigan benefited from jobs and contracts improperly served up by the utility in exchange for favorable treatment of its legislative wish list.

The Southwest Side Democrat, who is chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

Tops on the governor’s wish list is an immediate repeal of so-called formula rates, which ComEd won in 2011 through a bill that former Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed. His veto later was overridden by the General Assembly.

That rate structure enabled ComEd to automatically get increases to cover any operating losses, which essentially guaranteed the company a profit every year. The law limited the role of the Illinois Commerce Commission in setting rates.

The rate structure is due to expire in 2022, but the company has actively pushed for an extension.

Pritzker also wants to prevent ComEd from billing ratepayers for its charitable contributions, which the administration says have been used historically by the utility to “bolster their political power at ratepayers’ expense.”

Another proposal from the governor calls for public office holders or governmental appointees to disclose whether any of their relatives work for utility companies. Two Chicago Democrats charged last year by federal investigators in separate corruption stings — former Rep. Luis Arroyo and Sen. Martin Sandoval — both have immediate family members who were employed by ComEd.

“What you’re seeing from us and what you’re seeing in this document is we need more oversight at large, and we need that oversight to be credible,” Mitchell said.

Pritzker’s demands also include the elimination of deposits and late fees for low-income residential ratepayers and an end to fees assessed for the online payment of bills.

Additionally, the governor is seeking beefed-up disclosure of shut-offs and reconnections to state utility regulators, which were not consistently reported before Pritzker’s COVID-19 moratorium on shutoffs.

The governor is seeking to have Illinois running on 100% clean energy by 2050 and is calling for new steps to boost solar and wind project developments in the state, plus encourage use of electric vehicles. By 2030, the governor hopes to have 750,000 more electricity-powered vehicles on Illinois roads.

Mitchell said the overarching goals are to protect utility consumers, encourage more climate-friendly energy use and instill greater ethical standards so that ComEd won’t be able to ramrod its legislative agenda through the statehouse without transparency.

“Let’s now level-set and start from a place of, ‘Utilities, you’re going to have to account for everything you get moving forward from Illinois ratepayers’, so they can have some confidence that whatever we produce was not written by the utility companies,’ ” Mitchell said.

“Are the utility companies still going to participate in working groups? Yes, they’re going to have a seat at the table. But unlike before, they will not be able to buy every chair,” he said.

Mitchell said the governor intends to seek the resumption next week of working groups that had been mulling utility legislation through May. The goal is to get some kind of legislative package ready for presentation during the legislature’s six-day fall session, which begins Nov. 17.

The governor’s top aide stopped short of saying the administration would make a formal request that Madigan recuse himself from deliberations, considering the numerous Madigan references in the federal filing outlining ComEd’s bribery scheme.

“The speaker’s not been involved in any working groups or conversations,” Mitchell said, when asked about the speaker recusing himself. “I think that’s a question for him.”

The 13-page set of principles the governor will make public today makes no mention of attempting to claw back any of the more than $150 million in earnings that ComEd acknowledged its bribery-tainted lobbying efforts in Springfield yielded since 2011.

During the eight years that federal investigators put under the microscope, WBEZ has found that ComEd’s state-approved revenues jumped by more than 30% and that its net operating income climbed more than 50%.

Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover Illinois politics and government for WBEZ. Follow them @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold.