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Both sides in CWIP debate gear up for new political push

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2009 - As the Missouri Legislature heads back into session Tuesday, lawmakers will be once again be deluged with the debate over a bill that would get rid of the state law that bars AmerenUE from charging ratepayers for the financing costs related to a proposed nuclear plant.

CWIP refers to the law's ban against utility charges for Construction Works in Progress.

On Monday, one of the opposing groups -- the Fair Electricity Rate Action Fund -- announced another non-political ally: the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.

According to the Fund, "The Human Rights Office of the Diocese joins AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), the Missouri Rice Research and Merchandising Council, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare and several of the state’s largest employers in a growing coalition opposed to Ameren’s potential 40% rate hike plan."

Note that all of the identified opponents are not the usual suspects, when it comes to political players. Fund spokesman Gregg Keller said in a telephone interview Monday that such opponents represent his group's "increasingly diverse" makeup.

Some allies privately say the addition of non-political groups like those involved in agriculture, the elderly and religion also reflect the opponents' success in galvanizing public opinion against AmerenUE.

Groups that don't usually get involved in controversial issues don't usually jump in political waters unless it looks like they have plenty of like-minded company.

Keller said his group's anti-Ameren ad campaign has prompted "thousands and thousands to call legislators'' in opposition to the Ameren bill.

The new non-political players also deflect attention away from some of the Fund's corporate members, such as Noranda Aluminum Inc., AmerenUE's largest retail customer.

Ameren just sent out a letter to its residential customers, including yours truly, in which Ameren singles out the Fund's corporate allies in bold capital letters:

"NORANDA, ANHEUSER-BUSCH IN-BEV AND MONSANTO. These large corporations already pay electric rates 40-50 percent LOWER than any residential customer and they are seeking further cuts for themselves..."

Noranda also got some unwanted attention a couple days ago when the White House listed "mass layoffs'' by the firm, and others in rural Missouri, as the reason the Labor Department was awarding Missouri a grant of $2.4 million to help the displaced workers. Some Noranda allies say hundreds more jobs could be at risk if the pro-Ameren bill passes. Fair or unfair, that message is apparently being circulated among rural legislators.

Meanwhile, a pro-Ameren coalition in favor of the bill -- Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future -- will hold its first "lobby day'' on Wednesday.

The coalition includes several labor unions and some businesses (including the utility association that includes Ameren, which is helping to bankroll the Energy Future group).

Spokesman Scott Charton said the Energy Future coalition -- which has been conducting its own TV ad campaign -- is "keeping it positive.''

The coalition's counter-message includes its contention that "a carbon tax is coming'' on coal use that will increase utility-users' bills anyway, making nuclear power the best "commonsense approach."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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