Protesters slam utility’s $64 million rate hike while CEO took home nearly $10 million, demand accountability to prevent another ComEd scandal
ST. LOUIS – Electric customers from across Central and Southern Illinois rallied outside Ameren’s St. Louis headquarters Thursday, slamming the Illinois utility’s new $64 million rate-hike request and calling for passage of clean energy legislation that would hold the company under the strictest accountability standards in state history.
The activists are members of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, a group of 200 consumer watchdogs, environmental activists, businesses, and community and faith leaders working for historic legislation in Illinois, the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA). That goal has been made more urgent by the pandemic and other developments over the last year.
“We are dealing with a crisis of corruption in Illinois, and Ameren has been trying to block our efforts, because they’re more concerned with boosting their bottom line at the expense of working families,” said Rev. Michael Atty of United Congregations of Metro East. “Illinois needs to hold utilities accountable, but Ameren is worried that will interfere with their profits. Enough is enough. CEJA can’t wait.”
Clutching signs with slogans such as “Stop the Rate Hike” and “Tired of the Corruption,” protesters on Thursday also unfurled a banner that proclaimed “Hold Ameren Accountable.”
Not only is Illinois facing a climate crisis, but it also is facing a crisis of utility corruption. Last summer, federal prosecutors announced that ComEd, the biggest electric utility in the state, was fined a record $200 million in a bribery scandal. At the heart of the corruption was improper lobbying by ComEd to pass legislation that created a system that set electric rates by formula.
The formula rate-setting system allowed both ComEd and Ameren Illinois a decade of unfair rate hikes. Under the system, Ameren raked in $170 million in increases, and is now asking for a new $64 million hike.
Ameren Illinois’ parent company made $871 million in profits in 2020, and continues to roll in 2021. This week, Ameren announced that its parent profits were up nearly 60 percent in the first quarter. The Illinois utility’s electric and gas profits were also up, by about 24 percent and 36 percent, respectively. According to Paywatch, Ameren CEO Warner L. Baxter made $9.7 million in total compensation in 2019, which is 66 times its median employee’s pay.
“We have a strong, clear message for Ameren executives: Our communities are tired of paying more and we’re sick of corruption,” said Toni Oplt, Chair of the Metro East Green Alliance. “We saw what ComEd did and we can’t let the big utilities get away with it anywhere in Illinois. We call on Ameren to get behind strong legislation that protects our power bills and holds them accountable. It’s long past time to put consumers before profits.”
Momentum behind comprehensive clean energy legislation like CEJA increased recently with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s proposed “Consumers And Climate First Act,” which shares many of CEJA’s goals of creating equitable jobs in every part of the state and holding utilities accountable. Negotiations are ongoing to pass a bill by the end of the legislative session in May.
While expressing optimism over the progress in Springfield, protesters decried recent actions by Ameren that expose the company’s intentions to avoid accountability and put up roadblocks to good legislation getting passed.
- In mid-April, the company proposed yet another formula rate hike, this one for $64 million, which would raise average electric bills by nearly $3 a month.
- Ameren has spent more than $85,000 on social media advertising this spring to masquerade as a grassroots group called “Downstate Energy” in an effort to defeat strong clean energy legislation. At the same time Ameren has pushed its own legislation that would extend the harmful formula rates for another decade and even expand them to the company’s natural gas customers.
- Most recently, the company sparked criticism when it made the unusual move of skipping out on a legislative hearing on utility accountability before the House Energy and Environment Committee, refusing to take questions or explain their position to lawmakers and customers.
“Ameren’s not fooling anyone,” said Gregory Norris, Executive Director of ACES 4 Youth. “The company attacking strong clean energy legislation is just a smokescreen to conceal their real concern that the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is trying to pass the strongest-ever utility accountability measures that would force them to disclose any inappropriate activity.”
Protesters urged Ameren to either support or get out of the way of accountability provisions, like the following:
- Ban unfair formula rate hikes, and replace it with a system that emphasizes customer affordability
- Create an independent ethics monitor, hired by the Illinois Commerce Commission, to serve at each utility headquarters. This onsite watchdog would review all lobbying contracts and invoices and file a yearly ethics audit of the company to prevent another ComEd scandal from happening at Ameren or any other utility
- Require each utility to hire a Chief Ethics Compliance Officer to assure that the company is following ethics guidelines and cooperating with the independent monitor
- Prohibit charitable contributions from being recovered from ratepayers
- Stop companies that get into ethical hot water from using customer money to cover legal expenses related to federal investigations
The Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition is made up of more than 200 consumer, business, environmental, environmental justice, health care, faith-based and student organizations.