Illinois POWER rally demands freeze rates now

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – “The people of Illinois are being robbed,” said Chuck Chandler to a crowd of over 500 protesters, mostly seniors, who rallied here at the Capitol building, May 9, urging the state Senate to roll back electric rates and pass a rate freeze.

Chandler, a heavy construction machine dealer from Peoria, said his electric bill went from $120 a month to $547. “Where are they going to get their money when we are all broke?” he asked.

Busloads of people from all over the state marched inside the Capitol to the rally, coined POWER (People Organized and Working for Electric Relief). “Freeze rates now” could be heard throughout the rotunda between speeches from dozens of pro-freeze lawmakers and consumer advocates.

The protest was a show of force in an ongoing fight to pressure the state Senate to roll back and freeze electric rates raised by Ameren and Commonwealth Edison, the two power companies that serve Illinois. Consumers have seen their bills double and triple after a 10-year rate freeze ended Jan. 1. Exelon, ComEd’s parent company, reported $691 million in profits for the first quarter of 2007, a 73 percent increase over the previous period, in part because of the rate hikes, advocates say.

State Rep. Karen Yarbrough said, “This is the single most important issue” currently facing the General Assembly and Illinois consumers.

A bill that calls for a rollback to 2006 rates is being ping-ponged between the state House and Senate. The House passed a version that included both Ameren and ComEd. But in a legislative maneuver, Senate President Emil Jones removed ComEd from the bill.

Yarbrough said in an interview she remembers when hundreds in Chicago lost their lives in a 1995 deadly summer heat wave. She and other rate freeze advocates argue that skyrocketing bills will lead to electricity shutoffs and more deaths.

Last summer, 39 people died in heat-related deaths in Chicago. Last September, six children lost their lives in a house fire after their electricity was shut off, and the family was forced to use candles to light their home.

“There’s something that can be done about this, and we can do it,” Yarbrough said.

William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action in Illinois, said, “Legislators are elected to protect us, not the corporations. We voted for them; now they need to vote for us.”

McNary said this is a statewide problem in desperate need of a statewide solution.

“If we don’t do something to freeze these outrageous rates, then this is basically a utility tax going directly into the pockets of the power companies and their stockholders,” he added.

McNary said lawmakers have to assess how to better utilize energy in the long term with safe, clean and less costly solutions that protect the environment as well as provide the basic needs of consumers.

Antonia Cotton, an African American mother of three adopted children, runs a daycare program in her home and is a proud member of Service Employees Local 880 in Peoria.

Cotton said her electric bill went from $250 a month to $475. She cares for seven children every day.

“With the rate hike, it’s like we are paying two mortgages per month, and I can’t afford to feed the babies.”

Monique Moore, a community activist with the Chicago-based South Austin Coalition, was making picket signs on her bus. “Utilities are basic necessities and we need them to live, so why do we have to struggle the way we do?” she asked. “We’re sick and tired of being stomped on and we are demanding to be counted and listened to.”

State legislators are scheduled to break for the summer on May 31, and many, including lawmakers, are hoping a solution can be reached before then.

plozano @pww.org