By Mike Leifheit
Ronald Reagan said government is the problem. That’s a ridiculous statement. That says all government is bad. The corollary is that all business is good: like Enron in California? Weren’t those guys convicted of fixing the price of electricity when they had the exclusive right to deliver it? I think there is more bad business out there than bad government. Bobby Kennedy calls it corporate crony capitalism.
Back when Commonwealth Edison and its parent company, Ameren, tried to pull pretty much the same thing here in Illinois, I wrote several columns about it. Essentially, they separated the electricity generating business from the delivery business, and then proposed to buy power from themselves under what they called a reverse auction process.
Rates were predicted to increase anywhere from 35 to 45 percent; this in an economy already hard hit in a number of ways. This could have been devastating for a number of small businesses like mine. In the summer, my electrical bills are already in the $1,000-plus range. The prospect of an extra $400 or $500 in a single month was daunting.
I felt this was a sham designed to bilk the public, and did what I could to bring it to the attention of our local legislators. I even proposed that we form a local electricity-buying cooperative and purchase the electricity for Rockford and let Commonwealth Edison deliver our electricity, but I wasn’t able to generate enough interest in the idea to get anything going.
I kept watching for outlandish rate increases every month this summer, but to my surprise, (and yes, we had a cooler-than-average summer, but when you turn the air conditioning on, it is on regardless). If anything, it seemed to have gone down, or at least stayed the same. I kept waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.
Meanwhile, though, Lisa Madigan, our state attorney general, had taken Ameren and ComEd to court. She seemed to be the only state employee really looking out for the good of the public in this area. She succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. As a result of her lawsuit against the utilities and a resulting cooperative she formed to buy electricity for the whole state, instead of a 35 to 45 percent increase, this year we saw a 6 percent rate decrease! So much for the idea that government can do nothing good.
Every business that uses electricity has benefited. So have homeowners. A $100 electric bill would have been $140, but instead it was $96. That’s almost $50 left for a family to go out to have something to eat, go to the movies, etc. This benefits other businesses in the region. The surprising thing about all of this is that it was so low profile. There was a press release from the attorney general’s office, but, for some reason, the media just didn’t pick it up. To Lisa Madigan’s credit, she didn’t toot her own horn too loudly, so I would like to do it for her here.
Actually, according to the Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, an Illinois watchdog group, electricity is one of those things that always benefits from government intervention, when it comes to price. Nationally, publicly-owned utilities deliver electricity about 10 percent cheaper than their privately-owned counterparts. Not only that, but they follow the rules better when it comes to things like respecting the environment.
There is no such thing as good government or bad government. We get the government we deserve, especially when we do not take an interest. Sometimes there are good things done by government, and it is necessary to take note and reward the people who do them with our vote. I, for one, will be willing to vote for Lisa Madigan for whatever office she chooses to run for, including governor of the State of Illinois.
Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.
From the October 28-November 3, 2009 issue