If you were wondering how worried House Speaker Michael Madigan is about election day, last week's special session gambit should have answered your question.
As you probably know, the Chicago Democrat asked Gov. Rod Blagojevich to call the General Assembly into special session right away to freeze electric utility rates for the next three years. In January, your electric bill is scheduled to rise anywhere from 20 to 50 percent, depending where you live, because of a law that was passed a decade ago.
Despite the national Republican collapse, despite the fact that Gov. Rod Blagojevich has spent millions of dollars on an electronic mugging of Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka, despite Speaker Madigan's mountains of campaign money and the fact that his members enjoy all the perks and powers of incumbency, Madigan's special session demand betrayed more than just a hint of urgency, perhaps even some panic, about some of his members.
Mike Madigan is not fond of special sessions. Gov. Rod Blagojevich wanted to call special sessions on more than one occasion earlier this year, but Madigan always talked him out of it. When House Republicans demanded a special session over the summer to address skyrocketing gasoline prices, Madigan said no way.
But then out of the blue Madigan called for a special session to freeze consumer electric rates.
The electric rate issue has some legs in Chicagoland, where ComEd's rates will rise more than 20 percent come January. But it's been absolutely huge downstate, where Ameren's rates will climb as much as 50 percent.
As a result, Democratic legislators like Rep. Mike Smith (D-Canton) and Rep. Kurt Granberg (D-Carlyle) who voted for the original legislation that has resulted in this rate hike are getting hammered by public opinion and by the Republicans. Rep. Bob Flider (D-Mt. Zion) was an Illinois Power lobbyist ten years ago and testified on the bill's behalf in committee. He was also on Ameren's payroll until late last year. Not good.
An opportunity to vote for a rate freeze before election day could ease voters' minds. But Senate President Emil Jones is on the opposite side of the fence.
Jones is a staunch ComEd ally and has taken big bucks from the utility, its parent and its employees. He only has one incumbent in any sort of trouble, Sen. Deanna Demuzio (D-Carlinville), and her relatively unknown opponent hasn't exactly set the district ablaze with his campaign. Instead of playing defense like Madigan, Jones is on the attack against Republican incumbents.
So, a special session that passed a rate freeze would give GOP incumbents like Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) and Sen. Cheryl Axley (R-Mt. Prospect) an opportunity to shore up their relationships with voters right before election day. When you look at it this way, it's pretty easy to see why Sen. Jones doesn't like Madigan's special session idea.
The governor has said he would gather the members in Springfield when there are enough votes to pass it.
Well, there already are enough votes. How many politicians do you think will vote to raise their constituents' electric bills by 20-50 percent less than a month before an unpredictable election? One head count has at least 30 Senators supporting it, but lots more will jump on board if the bill ever gets called for a vote on the floor.
However, if Blagojevich called the special session he would seriously alienate Jones, who might even refuse call it for a vote. Blagojevich would then look weak at a time when he needs to project strength. And he'd have to be in Springfield amongst reporters who don't particularly like him or trust him or believe a word that comes out of his mouth. He's rather just remain safely in the comfy cocoon of the multi-million-dollar TV fantasy world created by his advertising agency.
Meanwhile, the groups representing big business, which are almost always in league with the major utilities, have got to be disappointed in Topinka's announcement at the debate last week that she wanted a rate freeze extension. Topinka had little choice. She couldn't stand against a rate freeze, but the issue could separate her from part of her natural base of support - and it's the part that has a lot of dough.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at capitolfax.blogspot.com