ICC declines rate increase for ComEd, Peoples Gas angering organized labor


Three of Gov. JB Pritzker’s appointees to the Illinois Commerce Commission have not yet been confirmed by the Illinois Senate, including the chair, Doug Scott.
All three unconfirmed appointees have recently voted against the stated interests of trade unions.
Senate President Don Harmon has assiduously courted trade union support and has raised millions of campaign dollars from them.
So, right off the bat, the legislative math is pretty clear, even though Harmon’s office opted not to comment for this story.
Operating Engineers Union Local 150 is one of the most politically engaged trade unions in Illinois. The union blasted an ICC vote in November which “paused” $265 million in natural gas pipeline replacement work next year by Peoples Gas, calling it “a troubling example of political overreach” by “unconfirmed appointees” who are “playing games with peoples jobs, heat, and safety as we head toward the holidays and the cold of winter.”
“The war on gas stoves is here,” Local 150 exclaimed in dramatic fashion.
Peoples Gas then asked the ICC to reconsider its decision and restore half of the project money to pay for “critical safety and reliability work,” including finishing up ongoing projects, but the commission declined.
Mark Poulos, Local 150’s top lobbyist, told me last week that the ICC’s decision will cost his union members 1.5 million person-hours of work next year, and he’s furiously warning that the ICC commissioners’ confirmation hearings might not go so well in the Senate.
Poulos said the ICC’s rulings were part of its “overzealous” quest for “decarbonization” and moving away from the use of natural gas. “They are basically saying ‘F**k you, this system will be obsolete in the next generation,’” Poulos claimed, while warning that the future may not play out as the commissioners hope.
The Citizens Utility Board’s executive director Sarah Moskowitz recently appeared with Poulos on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program and noted that the ICC had granted Peoples Gas a record rate hike after the company reported record profits for six straight years and that existing state statutes mandate that the utility continue emergency and safety maintenance projects. “They're kicking and screaming about the fact that they just got a record rate hike but it's not enough,” said Moskowitz. “When is enough enough?”
Even so, the president of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the president of the Illinois AFL-CIO recently co-wrote an op-ed demanding that the legislature consider restarting the pipeline program if the ICC doesn’t reverse itself.
Other labor unions are not taking such a public approach. For instance, Bill Niesman is the business manager of IBEW Local 9, which does a lot of ComEd work, but he politely side-stepped questions about an ICC ruling that rejected ComEd’s proposed rate hike and ordered it to return to the commission within three months with a new plan.
The ICC explained its ruling via press release: “Specifically, the Commission’s decisions found that both utilities failed to sufficiently incorporate customer affordability into their proposals.” The vote was 4-1, with former AFL-CIO President Mike Carrigan voting No.
Niesman said his union is taking a wait and see approach, but said that the ICC’s low rate of return on equity for ComEd would mean less money for building up the region’s electrical grid. Other union leaders are saying privately that a big Senate confirmation process fight is indeed brewing.
The union leaders aren’t alone. The president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce co-wrote a recent op-ed with ComEd’s CEO about the need for more electrical infrastructure spending, and the Illinois Manufacturers Association supported ComEd’s ICC filing. They’re all worried about insufficiencies with the region’s electrical grid.
Gov. Pat Quinn backed down from a fight after he tried to appoint CUB’S then-executive director as the ICC chair, but you don’t get that vibe when talking with Pritzker’s people these days. Just the opposite.
This is Doug Scott’s second stint as ICC chair. He worked in the Pritzker administration to pass the massive Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. His appointment to the ICC in June was seen as a continuation of that mission. So, it’s doubtful that Pritzker will back down.
If the Senate decides to side with the unions on the appointments, Pritzker can play a cat and mouse game by withdrawing the appointments before the Senate can act, and then quickly reappointing them.
The bottom line is that organized labor and the business community are demanding far more robust infrastructure spending, while the governor’s people point to very real cost considerations for consumers. The Pritzker folks believe they will win that political fight.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax. com.