Senate filibuster keeps utility regulation reform at bay

For nearly 24 hours, members of the Missouri Senate have filibustered a bill that would change the way utility rates are regulated. (Elizabeth Hoffman/KRCG 13)

For nearly 24 hours, members of the Missouri Senate have filibustered a bill that would change the way utility rates are regulated.

The Senate took up the bill around 7 p.m. Wednesday and worked through the night well into Thursday afternoon, with critics of the legislation holding the floor.

Introduced by Lamar Republican Ed Emery, the bill would allow utility companies to recover their costs for infrastructure improvements quicker. It would also impose a three-percent limit on annual rate increases to consumers.

"As people have watched those rates go up for the last several years, a lot of constituents have said, 'hey, these rates are unpredictable and uncontrollable'," Sen. Mike Kehoe said.

Critics said the measure would result in ever-increasing rates for utility customers. Supporters counter argue it will ensure price predictability, rather than allow periodic surges that could be even larger.

A group of four senators kept the filibuster alive Thursday. As their colleagues drifted away from the floor, they repeatedly asked the chair for quorum calls to summon sleepy senators from their offices.

"We've incorporated this bill into the Trump tax that passed in December of 2017, where the utilities would be on an accelerated schedule to give that money that they're saving back to consumers," Sen. Kehoe said.

The bill originally addressed electric rates. Advocates added gas when filibuster participants refused to let the bill move.

Sen. Kehoe said that utility infrastructure is aging, whether it's gas, electric or water.

"The discussion of how many utilities are going to be involved, will this end up being just an electric bill or will we have other utilities involved? That's still up for debate," Sen. Kehoe said.

At a luncheon with out-of-town journalists, Gov. Eric Greitens said he supports Sen. Emery's efforts at utility regulation reform.

"We'll obviously wait to see what the bill looks like before it comes out, before rendering any kind of formal judgment," the governor said. "But I do support regulatory reform. I think it's really important for us to have a competitive economy here in Missouri and I think it's going to lead to more jobs and higher pay."

Lawmakers huddled in small groups throughout the day searching for a compromise that will break the filibuster. As of 4:15 p.m. Thursday, the filibuster was still in effect.

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