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Nobody, but nobody, would be stupid enough to invest in another nuclear reactor for eastern Missouri. AmerenUE CEO Thomas Voss knows that. He told the Post-Dispatch last July that unless the ratepayers pony up in advance, it can’t happen.

“We just couldn’t do it. The risk would be too great. We don’t think people would lend us the money. We don’t think our board of directors would approve it. And we don’t think our stockholders would think it’s prudent.”

So why should ratepayers should get stuck with such a turkey? Voss’ answer–Lager joked at one point in last week’s Senate hearing that Voss had said it nine times so far–is that he isn’t “emotionally attached” to the project. He’s just feeling it out in the legislature, he says–to see if we can be suckered into it, I’m sure he meant to add.

As for why this bill would be a sucker’s bet: it retains Ameren’s guaranteed monopoly and its 8 percent annual profits while shifting every conceivable burden to the consumers. It’s so brazen that Missouri’s last Public Counsel, John Coffman, and its current Public Counsel, Lewis Mills, once they got past opening and closing their mouths like fish, in disbelief, couldn’t find enough bad things to say about it. Here’s Mills:

Let’s consider the pros and cons of the plan. The pros are that another nuclear plant would provide reliable power for the future (if we should happen to need it) and it would provide jobs, jobs, JOBS–though not till four years from now when construction starts. By that time, as Irl Scissors, erstwhile environmental lobbyist turned nuclear proponent, testified, Missouri may well be desperate for jobs as our state is projected to have the third worst job loss picture in the nation.

But if you’re not one of those gettin’ the jobs from this plant, you could be gettin’ the shaft. A hospital administrator, for example, testified that hospitals are under increasing pressure in Missouri to treat people who lack health insurance. Just because the state kicked poor people off Medicaid doesn’t mean they stop getting sick. And if utility rates go up a million dollars a year for a hospital group, they can’t pass that extra drag on their income along to Medicare or Medicaid.

Kip Smith, CEO of Noranda Aluminum, Ameren’s biggest customer and a stabilizing force in the economy of Southeast Missouri, said that, because of global economic forces, U.S. aluminum companies are going out of business at an alarming rate. Noranda is likely to become one of those casualties if its rates go up.

But the rates won’t go up much, according to Voss–just one to three percent a year probably. The problem with that projection is that Voss can say anything he wants. Until Ameren is willing to share its figures with other interested parties–at least a couple of whom expect more like a forty percent raise in rates overall–we have no way to know how reliable the utility’s figures are. John Coffman suggested that if Ameren is confident in those figures, then the company should allow a cap of one to three percent in rate increases to be written into the bill.

As if that would happen.

Instead, Coffman noted that he counted a hundred different provisions in the bill that shift risk to the consumer. (As Mills pointed out, the bill is an Ameren wish list.) The most intolerable of these burdens is that Ameren would be allowed to raise rates every three months. Voss protests, however, that the PSC could deny the utility any of those raises. Even if you trust the PSC to actually be interested in our welfare, you must realize that the it would only have three months to determine whether or not any given rate hike was justified. And that is insufficient time. If the PSC did not specifically prohibit a raise within that ninety day window, the commission could not later return to the matter and force Ameren to lower the rates. The PSC would have only the three month window in which to speak or forever hold its peace.

Shades of the Wall Street Bailout. If we little folk are going to take on all the risks and burdens of a venture, why not just socialize it? The rational way to proceed would be, at the federal level, to nationalize the failing banks we bail out and, at the state level, to give the Missouri ratepayers ownership of AmerenUE. And let’s not have any pearl clutching over that suggestion, either. Fair is fair.

Otherwise, we can skip the whole boondoggle.

It’s an especially alarming scam when you remember that all the perks in the bill would apply to the proposed Callaway plant AND to every other large utility project from here on out. Let me repeat that: from now on, every new plant would be built with ratepayer funds up front. There would be no investigation once new plants went online into whether any of the money spent had been injudicious and should be disallowed. We would just hand Missouri utilities blank checks with the starry eyed hope that they would behave more sensibly than, say, Citigroup and Wells Fargo did when they got blank checks from the Feds. Missouri utilities could take our hard earned dollars and tear them into confetti if they chose, because they couldn’t be held responsible.  No judicial review could ever happen.

At last week’s hearing, senators listened to Monsanto, Noranda, and hospitals moaning about the free ticket to ride that Ameren wants. The chair of the Senate committee, Republican Brad Lager, observed that as the bill stands, he couldn’t even get it out of committee much less past the entire Senate. I can’t help but wonder if Ameren proposed this joke as a way to make us feel grateful when it backs down and settles for something more “reasonable”, i.e. a less flagrant giveaway.

It won’t surprise me if Ameren compromises somewhat and the Republicans on the committee act all pleased and vote in favor of the bill. If that scenario occurs, it will be time to put this travesty before the voters. Again.