A southeast Missouri senator Tuesday tossed a third bill into the debate over a potential construction of another Callaway County nuclear reactor.
Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, introduced a bill allowing an electricity provider to charge ratepayers for the costs of successfully getting an early site permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"We believe (this bill) is a good solution (that) balances the needs of AmerenUE ... with also the consumer protections that are vital," Crowell told reporters during a mid-day news conference.
Under the terms of a 1976 law Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed, no utility company can charge customers for construction of a new plant until after it is operating.
But Crowell's bill - and two measures introduced earlier by freshman Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City - would go around that law so that Ameren Missouri, or any other investor-owned utility that's part of a coalition Gov. Jay Nixon helped build last year, could apply for a site permit.
That is the first step in building a new nuclear plant.
But, unlike Kehoe's two bills, Crowell's measure would place into state law a permanent funding method for the state's Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility rate cases being considered by the Public Service Commission.
Former Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, now chairs the Consumers Council of Missouri's board of directors.
She told reporters Tuesday: "If we allow a little gnawing away of that (1976 law) for getting this permit, then the public's interests must be served at a higher level."
She said Crowell's bill requires the utility to refund money if a power plant isn't built, caps the cost the utility can pass along to ratepayers at $40 million (the bill Kehoe introduced last week has a $45 million cap) and "most important of all is the assessment funding for the Office of Public Counsel."
That funding would be done through an additional assessment on consumers' utility bills, which Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer estimated at "about 6 cents a month."
Bray said that office "has to be better funded (and) have more people."
Bob Quinn, a former state representative who now heads the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, helped run the PSC during Gov. Bob Holden's administration.
He said the proposed funding would help the Public Counsel's office get back to the staffing level it had before the state's recent years of lower revenues.
Mayer, R-Dexter, told reporters: "It's good that we move forward. ...
"I want to thank Sen. Kehoe, because I think (he) did a good job of starting the discussion on nuclear power, but I believe Sen. Crowell's bill has the best consumer protections that I've seen to date."
Kehoe said later: "I don't care whose name's on the bill. ... My main concern is to secure Missouri's energy future and provide jobs for Missourians.
"How we get there is the discussion Sen. Crowell said we're going to have when it goes to the committee, and I look forward to that."
Crowell said he expected his bill and Kehoe's plan to be heard in committee at the same time, "so that everyone's ideas on this topic can be heard in a public, transparent process, and we can quickly move forward. ... We are going to have a full, and robust, hearing on this topic," no matter how long that hearing lasts.
The Fair Energy Rate Action Fund (FERAF) applauded Crowell's bill.
"Throughout the legislative session, the monopoly electric companies have made it very clear they do not intend to add all three consumer protections to any legislation seeking an early site permit," the organization said in a news release.
FERAF's president, David Overfelt of Jefferson City, said in the release: "It is important that any legislative proposal that advances contain protections for businesses and residential ratepayers, who are being asked to underwrite the cost."
But the group Missourians for a Balanced Energy Future objected to the new bill.
"Senators Rob Mayer and Jason Crowell, along with their friends at Noranda (Aluminum), Anheuser-Busch and Ford, are trying to kill legislation that would create thousands of jobs and keep this (nuclear plant) option open for Missouri's energy future," the group said in a news release.
"They have introduced their own bill calling for a special fee to be added to everyone's utility bills to pay for more government bureaucrats (and) are thumbing their nose at a bill that could help keep rates down for the rest of us."