Power Play: Million-Dollar Shower of Campaign Contributions Related to Smart Grid Electric Legislation
In just the past 10 months, Illinois legislators have received more than $1 million in campaign contributions from electric utilities and opponents of controversial legislation granting electric utilities the power to raise rates without the approval of state regulators. Proponents in the electric utility industry argue that SB 1652 would bring electricity transmission into the 21st century, allowing utilities to better manage the transmission of electricity across the state and around the Midwest, and highlighting outages quicker and with more geographic accuracy.
Opponents of the bill, including Gov. Pat Quinn, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, AARP, and the Citizens Utility Board, object that SB 1652 will result in higher rates to households, will reduce oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission, and will charge rate payers for upkeep that should be part of the utilities’ normal operating expenses. Utilities outspent opponents of the so-called “Smart Grid” legislation by a margin of more than 4 to 1. The utility contributions to sitting legislators, state parties and legislative caucuses totaled $867,258, and the opposition, which includes the SEIU Health Care union, contributed $185,100 to the campaign committees of legislators and to party and caucus committees controlled by legislative leaders. Including giving to statewide officials and candidates in Chicago and Cook County, the utilities gave $975,510 while opponents gave $375,618.
The legislature passed SB 1652 in May, 2011 with bare majorities in both chambers. Gov. Quinn vetoed SB 1652 over the summer, requiring a two-thirds vote in both chambers to override the veto. In late October, the General Assembly voted to override the governor’s veto by a vote of 36 to 19 in the Senate and 74 to 42 in the House.
In 2011, the 110 legislators who voted with the electric utilities to override Gov. Quinn's veto of the bill received an average of $7,616 in campaign contributions from the electric industry and $2,178 from groups opposing SB 1652.
The 61 legislators voting to uphold Gov. Quinn’s veto received an average of $1,420 from groups opposing the bill and supporting the veto, and $2,178 from the electric industry.
Campaign committees controlled by the four legislative leaders – Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross – received the lion’s share of contributions from both sides of the debate. All four leaders voted for SB 1652. Their committees received a total of $295,650 in contributions from the utilities. The opponents of SB 1652 contributed a total of $69,000 to the leaders’ committees. Legislative leaders have traditionally provided most of the campaign money in hotly contested House and Senate races.
Electric companies contributing the most were Exelon/ComEd ($290,172) and Ameren ($409,688). SEIU Health Care ($159,700) had the largest total contributions among the opponents.
Both proponents and opponents of the bill have very sophisticated political organizations. Ameren and Commonwealth Edison, for instance, hired over a dozen contract lobbyists in 2011, and opponents like the governor and attorney general interact with legislators on a regular basis. There is a chicken-and-egg quality to the relationship between contributors’ giving and legislators’ votes – were contributors giving to friendly legislators, or were they giving in order to make friends? Democracy works best when legislators act in the interest of their constituents. Only voters can decide if their own legislator was acting in the interests of constituents, or in the interests of contributors.