May 23, 1:36 PM EDT

Greitens, Missouri lawmakers to discuss utilities bills


JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A Missouri House committee on Tuesday will begin considering legislation that Gov. Eric Greitens and supporters have called a job creator, but that critics call a veiled attempt to make it easier for investor-owned utilities companies to raise rates.

The proposal allows steel-works facilities and aluminum smelters to negotiate electricity rates lower than what is allowed under current law and for longer contracts, which supporters say could bring hundreds of jobs to an area in the southeast corner of the state. The region sometimes called the "bootheel" has suffered economically since an aluminum smelter closed last year.

But consumer advocates pointed to a provision in some bills that they say would make it much easier for investor-owned utilities to raise rates on a broader scope. The bill outlines several ways that major utilities companies such as Ameren, Kansas City Power and Light and Empire District Electric Company can get approval for rate changes or compensation.

For example, one proposal would allow the Public Service Commission to approve more compensation for modernizing the electric grid. Another would allow electric companies to get a performance-based rate that usually leads to bonuses, said John Coffman, the utility consumer counsel for the Consumers Council of Missouri.

"None of it is related to economic development in the bootheel," Coffman said. "(It) would slant the utility ratemaking process against ratepayers and in favor of giving utilities more compensation for what they do."

But Ameren spokesman Warren Wood said that the additional rules would simply allow the Public Service Commission to expand the tools it uses to approve rate changes, and wouldn't necessarily result in higher rates.

"This amendment it then adds those tools to use at (the commission's) discretion," Wood said. "It doesn't require that they use any of them."

While the need for more jobs in southeast Missouri has largely been accepted by lawmakers, some have raised concerns over the second half of the bill. Lawmakers are likely to begin to hash out those concerns during a House hearing Tuesday afternoon.

The governor has also scheduled a rally outside the capitol later in the afternoon to promote the legislation. The first-term Republican governor held events over the weekend in the southeast part of the state that stands to benefit from the proposal.

And a nonprofit called A New Missouri, which is run by the governor's campaign staff, has paid for buses to transport people from several areas in the state to the rally on the capitol steps Tuesday, said Greitens' senior adviser Austin Chambers.

"The people of southeast Missouri don't want welfare, they want jobs. They want (lawmakers) to bring back American jobs, and that's what we're going to do," Greitens said in a video on his Facebook page from the rally over the weekend.

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