Editorial Roundup: Illinois

Chicago Sun-Times. February 17, 2024.

Editorial: Illinois utility customers shouldn’t have to pay excessive add-on fees to their bills

A study by the Citizens Utility Board reports customers are paying tens of millions for such things as utility memberships in trade associations, insurance policies to protect shareholders, goodwill advertising that enhances utilities’ images and charitable donations. The Legislature should rein in the practice.

Say you’re a private business, such as an airline, that wants to keep up the appearance of low ticket prices with customers. So instead of raising ticket prices to cover additional costs, you tack on fees instead, using the excuse that if you don’t, you will lose business to competitors who do.

That’s not an excuse for utilities, which do not have competitors in their markets.

Yet a study by the Citizens Utility Board released Thursday reports Illinois utility customers are forced to pay, via add-on fees, for such things as utility memberships in trade associations, insurance policies to protect shareholders, goodwill advertising that enhances utilities’ images and charitable donations. The costs add up to tens of millions of dollars, CUB says. The Legislature should rein in the more egregious categories of that spending.

Critics say the utility trade associations work to help create policies in state after state that are beneficial for the utilities — and not so much for customers. CUB also notes customers even pay for lawyers and expert witnesses to argue that customers’ bills should go up, though utilities say that’s part of the cost of requiring utilities to go through a regulatory process.

As for charitable donations, a 2019 nationwide study by the Energy and Policy Institute of 10 leading investor-owned electric utilities found the utilities used the donations as part of their political operations to generate support for utility priorities. Similarly, a 2021 analysis by WBEZ and one by the Chicago Tribune in 2015 found some of ComEd’s charitable contributions were paid to groups that supported the utility’s interests. ComEd was not included in the EPI study.

“People don’t realize they are paying to increase the political power and influence of the utilities,” Bryan McDaniel, CUB director of governmental affairs, told us.

Utilities, of course, have many legitimate expenses. But costs that are not directly tied to providing services should be covered by company profits, not billed to customers. Charitable giving for worthy causes is good, of course, but it is not something that should come out of ratepayers’ pockets. It’s not exactly altruism to force someone to give you money so you can donate it to someone else for your own benefit.

There is no reason utilities can’t keep donating to community groups, for example, but they shouldn’t use customers’ money to do so.

“Illinois is unusual in that the utilities can pass on 100% of their charitable contributions to their customers,” said Abe Scarr, state director of Illinois PIRG (Public Interest Research Group).

The Legislature should make Illinois the fourth state to require utilities to pay discretionary costs out of profits, joining Colorado, Connecticut and Maine. Arizona, California, Maryland, New York, Virginia and Ohio are considering taking action as well. Bills to do so in the Illinois House and Senate — HB 5061 and SB 2885 — are backed by CUB and AARP Illinois.

Some of the proposed reforms were included in the original version of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, landmark legislation that Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in 2021 to put the state on a path to clean energy, but they were dropped during negotiations after push-back from the utilities.

By enacting legislation, the Legislature could send another signal that the days are over for utilities, which have a habit of seeking large rate increases, to get overly favorable treatment from lawmakers and regulators. Utilities around the country have been beset by scandals — think ComEd, FirstEnergy and Florida Power & Light — but the answer is for utilities to clean up their acts, not to charge customers for ad campaigns to burnish utilities’ images.

Many customers struggle to pay utility bills or can’t pay them at all. As of January, 438,815 ComEd customers were 30 days or more behind on their bills, as were 144,510 people for Peoples Gas and 206,022 for Nicor, according to CUB. They shouldn’t be forced to pay expenses the utilities should be shouldering on their own, especially if the purpose of those expenditures is partly to drive up bills people already are struggling to pay.

The Legislature has a chance to inject some common sense into utility bills. It should do so.

___

Champaign News-Gazette. February XX, 2024.

Editorial: Supreme Court asked to settle controversy over state’s gun ban

The talking is not yet done. But the arguing — legal, that is — is about to begin.

Legislators acted with fury after the 2022 mass shooting at the Highland Park Fourth of July parade — both in word and deed.

They quickly passed a ban on “assault weapons” that is now in place. Whether it will remain the law is still to be determined.

The U.S. Supreme Court may have the last word. It will most certainly be the last stop for a constitutional challenge to the controversial law.

That’s because the Illinois State Rifle Association and the National Association of Gun Rights have teamed up — as they promised — to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appeals court’s decision validating the law’s constitutionality.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld ban’s constitutionality by a 2-1 vote in November. The law’s opponents this week asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that decision.

But the high court is under no obligation to do so. In fact, it accepts a very small percentage of the cases it’s asked to review.

If it takes the case, it will be months before lawyers submit legal briefs and present oral arguments. Then it will take additional months before the nine justices issue a ruling.

If the court denies what is called a “petition for certiorari,” it won’t take long by judicial standards — a matter of months. At that point, the case would be over and the law would stand.

The appeals court upheld the “assault weapons” ban because it concluded those firearms are “much more like machine guns and military-grade weaponry than they are similar to firearms used for self-defense.”

It was a controversial decision and by no means obviously correct in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in a New York state case that found gun regulations must be “consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

That rather vague legal standard leaves considerable room for interpretation.

Obviously, it’s complicated, and that’s one reason why the high court might want to take a look at Illinois’ sweeping law.

The legislation bans the sale of both a variety of “assault weapons” as well as high-capacity magazines.

While forbidding their sale, the law allows current owners of those firearms to keep them. But it ordered them to register those weapons with the state.

The deadline for registration expired Jan. 1. But in a sign of the law’s unpopularity with gun owners, compliance has been minimal.

The controversy is just one more sign of the political disconnect among the people and regions of the state.

In that respect, the high court’s action will resolve the fate of this particular law but leave unresolved the disagreement over the issue of the proper level of firearm controls.

END