Despite Governor’s call, House postpones utility modernization debate to another day

The state House has worked to answer Governor Eric Greitens’ (R) call to an extraordinary session on one of the two issues he set before it, but not the other.

Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

It sent to the Senate on Wednesday a bill that would let the Public Service Commission (PSC) consider lower rates for new facilities that use more than 50 megawatts of electricity per month.  It was prompted by two companies – one looking to restart an aluminum smelter near Marston; the other saying it will build a new steel mill at New Madrid.  Both are in Southeast Missouri where lawmakers agreed jobs are needed badly.

Earlier story:  House uses special session to pass bill aiming to bring jobs to Bootheel

The House did not include language that would give utilities more leeway to set new rates ahead of new infrastructure investments.  That was part of Greitens’ call, but the issue is considered controversial and lawmakers in the House thought including it would keep the rest of the legislation from passing in the Senate.

Some lawmakers, however, said the issue is one that needs to be discussed.

“I think our state needs to have a conversation about energy policy for the next 40 years and not just the next four months,” said Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City), who brought the infrastructure-related language to the floor in order to have legislators discuss it before he withdrew it.

Barnes said the language that was originally in House Bill 1 was too broad, and instead supports legislation that would allow the PSC to consider increasing rates ahead of improvements to power grids and other infrastructure in order to pay for those improvements.

“At least for one utility in this state there are four coal plants that are on average at least 50 years old.  Some of those need retrofitting and there are those in American society who would want those closed down altogether,” said Barnes.  “Half of the substations for the utility company that services my area are over 40 years old … much of the electrical infrastructure underground in St. Louis that supports our state’s biggest city is 80 to 100 years old.  As a state we are living on the investments of our grandparents … there are tough decisions to be made about how to modernize that infrastructure.”

Critics like St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery say what Barnes is discussing would give a “monopoly utility” the chance to get “extra money.”

“That’s what grid modernization is.  It’s the ability for them to get money ahead of time and faster in order to do things that I think they should be doing already,” said McCreery.

Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Barnes said he hopes the legislature will revisit the discussion of grid modernization incentives.  House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) agrees.

“I think the State of Missouri needs to have a longer-term conversation about energy policy and what that needs to look like.  The status quo with energy policy right now isn’t working particularly well,” said Richardson.  “Our ratepayers in Missouri are seeing significant increases almost every 12 to 18 months.”

Richardson said the House in this week’s special session was focused on passing the other issue called for by the governor so those two companies would not pull out of plans to come to Missouri.  Barnes noted grid modernization legislation in the past has been “stymied” in the Senate.