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Meltdown in Missouri Legislature over CWIP preceded Ameren's decision not to seek a nuclear plant

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2009 - At a press conference Thursday morning, AmerenUE announced that it would no longer seek to build a second nuclear plant. That news came following a consensus in Jefferson City that the CWIP bill would not pass this session.

AmerenUE had spent $75 million on licensing fees and other preparatory work. Those costs will not be passed on to the ratepayers, the company said. 

The legislation would have repealed Missouri's ban on charging ratepayers for construction work in progress (CWIP). While the session has three more weeks, the differences were apparently too great to smooth over in time.

That's at least according to Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican who played a big role in crafting a substitute version of the repeal to the state's Construction Work in Progress law, which was approved directly by voters.

"I think the parties involved are too unwilling to compromise. I think that's unfortunate," Schaefer said. "That's where we find ourselves at this point in time."

The CWIP bill was linked to the prospect of AmerenUE building a new nuclear power plant in Callaway County. Proponents said the bill would pave the way for a huge construction project creating thousands of jobs, as well as provide the state with an abundant power source.

But the bill ran into opposition from a coalition of big businesses, consumer groups and some environmentalists. Companies such as Noranda -- an aluminum company based in New Madrid that's Ameren's biggest customer -- said the measure would hurt its bottom line enough for it to move out of the state.

Even though a few Democrats -- such as Sens. Frank Barnitz, D-Lake Spring, and Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake -- signed on, Gov. Jay Nixon announced that he was opposed to the bill as written. He has said that he isn't opposed to a nuclear plant, but to this bill. Nixon is expected to announce some conservation measures tomorrow before the energy summit at the University of Missouri.

But the CWIP bill's main opposition came from Republicans. Included in that group was Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, a freshman legislator who joined with Sens. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, Robert Mayer, R-Dexter, and Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, in opposing the measure.

Lembke blamed Ameren's failure to educate the public about why the legislature needed to the CWIP bill. He also cited hundreds of phone calls from constituents in his south St. Louis district worried about the effect of the legislation.

"Within a two to three day period, I had over 600 calls from constituents telling me to vote against this bill," Lembke said. "I don't necessarily take a poll of every issue in my district to see how I vote down here. But when I hear from constituents and they tell me they don't want me to support a bill in its current form, that's the position I've taken."

Also coming out against the bill was Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, who expressed concern about how the legislation would alter how the state's Public Service Commission operates.

Bray said Ameren "overreached with a way too complex bill."

"I am convinced that the bulk of the bill is what Ameren really wanted and that was to change the basic nature of the way the Public Service Commission does business. And that's what caused a lot of opposition to the bill."

Bray also said there were a variety of reasons various senators opposed the legislation. Lawmakers tended to oppose the measure if they had a philosophical disagreement or heard concerns from constituents or a large user.

"There were too many angles in this bill that gave too many people something to hate in it," Bray said. 

Sen. John Griesheimer, R-Washington, was a strong supporter of the CWIP bill. But he said Ameren's inability to communicate on the issue hurt tremendously, especially after opponents of repealing the ban launched a public relations campaign.

"I can give them some advice," Griesheimer said. "If they want to try the legislative route next year, then what they need to do is do a public relations campaign before the legislative session to educate the general public on what needs to be done."

"That's in my opinion where they screwed up this year," Griesheimer said, adding that the bill featured a number of provisions that he believed harmed its chances of passing.

Schaefer said legislators should have been negotiating the legislation before the General Assembly convened, as opposed to trying to nail down a compromise as the session dragged on. But he said federal decisions could push the bill to the forefront again.

He said the Environmental Protection Agency's determination last week that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health is legally significant. Once the EPA makes that determination, he said, regulation of CO2 become mandatory.

"But that is a major, major threshold changing point in the carbon tax," Schaefer said. "And so what we're going to see in the next couple of years is a substantial increase in the cost of power in the state of Missouri because the cost of coal-based power is going to go up substantially as a result of that. I think we had a chance in the state of Missouri to protect our ratepayers over the long term by switching to coal. And unfortunately, that didn't work out."

Still, proponents of the bill are hopeful that the warring sides of the issue can come to consensus over the interim.

"This is a big concept," said Sen. Delbert Scott, the sponsor of the CWIP bill. "This is the first year of an issue. It's not rare that it takes two or three years to get something through the legislature."

Scott, R-Lowry City, says that while the going is slow right now, the session still has three weeks.

"Nothing's dead until the last day at 6 o'clock," Scott said. "There's a House bill that's poised to run, if we want to approach it that way and get something here at the last minute."

Lembke said he's "willing to sit down any time and any place" to discuss making the bill work.

"Quite frankly on a number of different issues, special interest groups that spend a lot of money down here on lobbyists to let their position be known are used to getting things their way," Lembke said, adding that new senators are posing questions about the measure. "And I think this is the process and I think that our constituents, bottom line, are the ones that are being looked out for."

Kat Logan Smith, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and an opponent of CWIP, also worries that until the session is actually over, no bill can be pronounced dead.

"It's a great Earth Day present to hear that the bill is dead, but I'm not putting all my eggs into that basket."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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