The Price of Power

Illinois’ two major electricity providers donated more than $1.3 million to legislators ahead of crucial “Smart Grid” vote. Whose interests were they really representing?

BGA ComEd Ameren
A controversial utility-friendly energy bill sailed through the Illinois General Assembly in March, and a Better Government Association analysis finds Illinois’ two major electric companies spent big to help make that happen.

ComEd, Ameren, and their affiliates and executives made at least $1.3 million in campaign contributions to members of the General Assembly, candidates for those offices, statewide office holders and state party organizations during the ramp-up to the bill’s adoption, according to a BGA review of Illinois State Board of Elections data.

This comes on top of another $1.5 million donated by the utilities when they were pushing a previous incarnation of the bill in 2010 and 2011, the BGA found.

Ameren, which provides electricity for many Downstate residents and businesses, and a top Ameren executive collectively donated $850,087 during this most recent period, state campaign records show. ComEd, its parent Exelon and their employees donated a total of $507,492, records show. ComEd has roughly 3.8 million customers in northern Illinois, including Chicago.


RELATED STORY: Utilities Brighten Up IL Legislators’ Campaign Funds


The new BGA review covers Jan. 1, 2012, to March 21, 2013 – the day the so-called "Smart Grid" bill passed the Illinois House. The state Senate passed the bill a week earlier, and the measure will likely become law later this year.

The legislation is expected to generate billions of dollars for ComEd and Ameren by allowing them to raise electricity rates over the next decade. In exchange for permission to hike rates, the utilities agreed to modernize their electric grids to improve output and reduce power outages.

The legislation has had a tumultuous history. It was initially passed by the General Assembly in 2011, vetoed by Gov. Pat Quinn and approved again as legislators overrode the veto. That made the bill law.

But before the law was fully implemented, a new roadblock emerged: the Illinois Commerce Commission, a government agency that regulates power companies in Illinois, interpreted the wording differently than legislators and the utilities. And in that interpretation, ComEd and Ameren stood to pull in less cash from rate hikes.

So the law was effectively scrapped and a new bill was crafted to clear up the confusion. That’s the measure that just passed in March.

Political contributions

$1.36 million – Since Jan. 1, 2012, Illinois’ two electricity giants, Ameren and ComEd (along with ComEd’s parent company Exelon, and various utility executives) have donated at least $1,357,579 to members of the Illinois General Assembly, candidates for those offices, statewide office holders and political party organizations.

$850,087 – came from Ameren and its top executives.

$507,492 – came from ComEd, its parent company Exelon and their top executives.

 

It now moves to Quinn, who’s likely to again exercise his veto power. He’s opposed to the bill because it "undercuts" the ICC, a Quinn spokeswoman said. The bill installs a formula on how the ICC considers rate hike requests from the utilities, speeding up the process, and taking away some of the ICC’s regulatory power.

The General Assembly would likely override another Quinn veto, so the bill would become law at that point.

Proponents of the bill argue it would make electric service more reliable, and Illinois more business-friendly. Opponents contend the measure would stick it to taxpayers so utilities – with help from their political allies – can maximize profits.

The executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, a Chicago-based nonprofit that represents the interests of residential utility customers in Illinois, told the BGA he’s bothered by the level of campaign spending by the utilities.

"They’re a regulated monopoly," said CUB’s David Kolata. "I don’t know ultimately what an affect [the campaign cash] has, but it certainly doesn’t look good."

The BGA agrees. As a nonprofit that exposes problems in local government and advocates for good-government principles, the BGA doesn’t believe political figures should accept anything of value – including campaign money – from people or groups that they regulate or otherwise hold sway over.

The BGA review found the utilities spread their campaign money across both political parties and both chambers of the Legislature in the 15 or so months before the "Smart Grid" bill was approved.

Among the findings:

  • Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego) was the biggest recipient, at $46,850. He was followed by state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) at $41,500.
     
  • Senate Energy Committee Chairman Mike Jacobs (D-Moline), whose father is a ComEd lobbyist, took in $41,000. The main campaign fund for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), Friends of Michael J. Madigan, accepted $37,000, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) took $24,500.
     
  • All four legislative leaders backed the "Smart Grid" bill. But those who ultimately voted against the measure also benefitted from contributions, albeit not nearly as much. In the Senate, six of the nine members who voted "no" had received contributions from energy utilities, at an average of $2,958 per legislator. In the House, 22 of the 28 lawmakers who voted "no" received contributions, raking in an average of $2,164.

So does that kind of campaign money buy influence? A spokesman for Madigan scoffed when asked that by the BGA.

"That’s a poorly thought-out question," said Steve Brown, adding the BGA would not be able to talk to Madigan directly.

A spokeswoman for Ameren said the company’s donations go to support candidates with "common interests."

"I don’t think it influences them. Not at all," said Ameren spokesman Leigh Morris. "We, like many individuals and organizations, support candidates who share similar views."

ComEd and Exelon echoed those thoughts.

"Exelon and ComEd, similar to their peers in the nuclear and electric utility industries, support candidates from both parties who they believe will support sound energy policies in the state," Exelon spokesman Paul Eisberg said via email.

While Ameren and ComEd spent big on individual lawmakers, political party organizations cleaned up, too. The House Republican Organization, led by a longtime ally of Cross, ex-state Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano (R-Elmwood Park), took in $119,250, campaign records show. Cullerton’s Senate Democratic Victory Fund received $117,250, followed by the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee, which is led by Radogno.

A spokeswoman for Radogno said while the campaign cash has no influence on her votes, the two companies are very important to lawmakers.

"Ameren and Commonweath Edison are major employers in the state of Illinois, and they drive a lot of economic activity in the state," Patty Schuh said. "That’s more important than any campaign contribution."

Party organizations cleaned up

angelo saviano
$119,250 Went to the House Republican Organization, controlled by now-former state Rep. Angelo "Skip" Saviano (R-Elmwood Park), an ally of Illinois House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego)
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$117,750 Went to the Senate Democratic Victory Fund, led by state Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago)
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$113,250 Went to the Republican State Senate Campaign Committee, led by state Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont)
 
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$70,000 Went to the Democratic Party of Illinois, led by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago)
 
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$42,750 Went to the Democratic Majority, another Madigan-controlled group
 
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$10,000 Went to the Illinois Republican Party, led by Chairman Pat Brady

 

The utilities also donated big to three other campaign committees controlled by Madigan. The Democratic Party of Illinois received $70,000, the Democratic Majority pulled in $42,750 and the 13th Ward Democratic Organization received $1,000, records show.

These kinds of donations are nothing new. A 2011 analysis by the BGA found members of the General Assembly and their political organizations took in more than $1.5 million in contributions from ComEd, Ameren and their interests between January 2010 and October 2011 – during the initial "Smart Grid" push.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan – Michael Madigan’s daughter and an oft-mentioned candidate for governor – didn’t receive any direct campaign donations from ComEd or Ameren, although she has received substantial campaign assistance from her father over the years.

Quinn, Lisa Madigan’s presumptive opponent in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor, is a longtime critic of electric utilities, and also received no direct campaign money from ComEd or Ameren. Both Quinn and Lisa Madigan officially registered opposition to the bill after it was introduced.

Ameren’s Morris said the bill was critically important for Illinoisans, explaining: "We live in the electric age, without electricity, nothing else is possible."

So who took the most?

 
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senator john j cullerton
 
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michael j madigan
 $46,850  $41,500  $41,000  $37,000
State House Minority Leader Tom Cross State Senate President John Cullerton State Sen. Mike Jacobs (D-Moline, chairman of Senate Energy Committee) House Speaker Michael Madigan

 

christine radogno
david mcsweeney
don harmon
 $24,500  $22,000  $18,000
 State Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno State Rep. David McSweeney (R-Barrington Hills) State Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park, introduced bill that overrode Quinn’s veto in 2011)

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Patrick McCraney, who can be reached at (815) 483-1612 or pmccraney@bettergov.org.