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Here is a pair of political strange bedfellows: ex-Senator Joan Bray (D-St. Louis) and Sen. Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau). Bray doesn’t find it all that strange, really, that she and Crowell are on the opposite side of the fence from Gov. Nixon, opposing the governor’s bill to give Ameren $40 million to apply for a license for another nuclear plant. She says she and Crowell have always gotten along well, but they usually disagreed on issues. It’s nice to find something they can work on together.

Their common interest in this case is ratepayers. Noranda Aluminum, the state’s largest industrial user of power, is in Sen. Crowell’s district; and Noranda, along with Anheuser-Busch InBev, is upset that the proposed $40 million giveaway  did not contain promised funds for the Office of Public Counsel. That is where the interests of the two senators converge. Bray, too, thinks the Office of Public Counsel is ridiculously underfunded. Bray’s group, the Consumers Council, is a coalition of large industrial users (like Noranda and InBev), the AARP, and the MO Assn. of Social Welfare, all working with the Office of Public Counsel to defend rate payers against the rate hikes that the PSC so liberally hands out whenever Ameren comes begging. The Office of Public Counsel, in its attempts at sweet reason in the PSC hearings, is typically outgunned ten to one. Ameren uses the money we ratepayers are forced to fork over to finance lotsa lawyers, who then convince the PSC to wring even more money out of us. For Ameren customers, it’s like being forced to pay for the bullets of our own firing squad.

As head of the Consumers Council, Bray opposes, no question about it, giving Ameren forty million dollars to apply for the license. The Council’s first objection is that state law forbids giving utilities any funds for new plants until they actually come on line. Just as much of a sticking point is that we’re talking about a new nuclear plant, and that especially riles many green activists.

But Bray pointed out to me that as heartily as she opposes another nuclear plant in Callaway County, she must, as head of the Consumers Council, be aware of political realities. And the reality is that Ameren is almost surely going to get that forty mill. That being the case, the advocates for ratepayers had best get something valuable out of the deal if they can, and that’s what they’re aiming to do. To that end, when the bill came up for a hearing in Crowell’s committee, he stipulated that the OPC would get its funds from Ameren rather than from the state and that it would get appreciably more funding. That stipulation had been promised and then–oops–left out. If Crowell and the Consumers Council can stall the deal unless the Office of Public Counsel gets more funding, then at least the OPC can use its new funds to lobby against changing the anti-CWIP law–against, in other words, forcing ratepayers to cough up in advance for a second nuclear plant in Callaway County.

Hey, as long as we have to pay for the bullets that will be fired at us, shouldn’t we also be allowed to buy some ammo for our own defense? That’s only fair, especially since we’ll still be outgunned. Consider that the OPC, if it gets its funding from a dedicated stream taken out of Ameren’s profits, wouldn’t have the kind of moolah that the utility’s CEO can spend on lawyers and lobbyists. OPC would get somewhere between $3 and $4 million dollars. Ameren spent $4 million on its last rate case alone, whereas the OPC would have to use its funds for utility cases around the entire state. But the odds would be more even.

And just as important, the Office of Public Counsel would be protected from political vagaries. In these dire times for the state budget, when agencies and programs are being slashed on every side, who knows what might happen to the OPC’s funding? Instead of having one tenth the resources to argue a case that Ameren has, it might end up having 1/20th of the resources. Or none. It could be entirely defunded. We do have a Republican legislature.

The important ball to keep your eye on when it comes to this bill, then, is whether or not, if it passes, it includes a dedicated funding stream taken from Ameren to give the Office of Public Counsel some parity in litigating rate cases. If that happens, it will be because all the stakeholders on our side pooled their might. Big Bill Haywood, that famous turn of the 20th century labor leader, used to show immigrants who were trying to form unions an open hand and demonstrate how easily any single finger can be bent. But then he would make a fist to illustrate the strength that comes from unity. Perhaps the Consumers Council is about to experience itself as a fist.

As for whether giving Ameren $40 million it neither needs nor deserves could ever be considered winning? Eh, that’s a tough case to make. But getting four million dollars a year out of Ameren’s profits for the Office of Public Counsel would certainly take much of the sting out of that kind of “winning”.