CHICAGO - While the Illinois Citizens Utility Board caught some development and policy experts off guard with its support of the potentially pricey Clean Jobs Bill earlier this year, Dan Proft of the Illinois Opportunity Project contends that he wasn’t surprised.
“Sometimes they’ll tilt at windmills, figuratively and literally, if it means sticking it to ComEd,” he said.
The Illinois General Assembly created CUB in 1983, following an effort launched by then consumer activist and now former Gov. Pat Quinn. It directed the organization to represent the interests of residential utility customers by pushing the state’s electric, gas and telephone companies for lower rates and better service.
While CUB maintains that it is a nonpartisan organization, critics like Proft say that despite disputes between CUB and the utility companies, they follow the same ideology.
“CUB ostensibly holds itself out as the champion, the dissenter, the representer of taxpayers in taking on the utilities, but functionally, they come from a left ideological perspective,” Proft said. “[David] Kolata, their executive director, is a Democrat. Most of these guys are.”
“You have your progressive left Democrat at CUB versus your big business Democrat at the utilities,” he added. “Sometimes they’ll fight. And sometimes if CUB wins, there is some short-term benefit to the taxpayer. But ultimately, they agree to the same paradigm.”
Martin Cohen served as CUB’s executive director for 14 years and now owns a consulting firm in Chicago that specializes in energy economics, smart grid policy and consumer protection. He disagrees with Proft, contending that CUB is a pragmatic organization that focuses solely on issues involving energy, water and telecommunications.
“A left-leaning ideology?” Cohen said. “That doesn’t sound like a reasonable critique, because there is nothing ideological about what CUB does. CUB does not take positions on political issues or candidates, and CUB is prohibited by law from backing candidates for public office.”
Cohen also disagrees with the idea that CUB works for short-term benefits, explaining that in his experience, the organization looks at the whole picture when advocating for the lowest possible rates and aiding the state’s utility customers.
“CUB in my day, and since then under the new leadership, has always been willing to fight before the [Illinois] Commerce Commission and courts and the legislature whenever it believed it was the right course of action,” Cohen said. “They have also been willing to work with the utilities when it would be advantageous for consumers. It’s complicated, but CUB has done a very good job.”
For example, Cohen says, CUB worked with many different parties, including the utility companies, to negotiate legislation that restructured the electric utility industry in 1997. He says that while there were some risks involved in working with the utilities, the legislation has saved consumers money and decreased rates in Illinois.
Cohen contends that CUB’s unique source of funding also allows it to operate as an independent organization. While most consumer advocacy agencies in other states are funded by their legislative leaders or through their utility companies, he says CUB is funded by individual donors, foundations and some grants.
“CUB has a lot of independence because it is not beholden to the elected officials or the state government,” Cohen said. “It is not dependent on them for funding nor is it dependent on the utilities for funding. It is funded by its members.”
CUB points out in its website that it is primarily funded by Illinois consumers. However, according to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, CUB has received a total of $1.9 million in state grants since 2007. From 2009 to 2015 – the years Quinn served as governor – the organization received $1.7 million of that total in state grants.
Phillip Casey, vice president and deputy general counsel at NiSource, an energy holding company in Merrillville, Ind., often interacted with CUB in his previous roles as an administrative law judge and then general counsel of the Illinois Commerce Commission.
Like Proft, Casey characterizes CUB as a left-wing organization whose recent advocacy has involved less attention on utility rates and more focus on participating in Illinois politics.
“It seems that over the last 10 years, the positions that were being taken were more political than they were necessarily for the good of public utility regulation in the state,” he said.
He refers to several cases at the Illinois Commerce Commission where CUB joined forces with the Illinois Attorney General's Office and the City of Chicago.
According to the Illinois Commerce Commission website, CUB recently intervened and filed an emergency motion with the City of Chicago and the People of the State of Illinois in an investigation into alleged misconduct related to The People’s Gas Light and Coke Company’s accelerated main replacement program. The case was filed in March, and a hearing is pending.
Charles Acquard, executive director of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates, explains that his organization and most of its consumer advocate members were created in the 1990s after several large utility rate increases.
He says that while the utilities were looking after their stockholders and the utility commissions were looking after the public interest, someone needed to represent the ratepayers.
Acquard contends that most of his organization’s members are small and operate with limited resources, but it’s still important for them to participate in negotiations that concern the utility industry. He also says that politics play no role in those negotiations.
“Some Republicans have been very good to members of our groups, and Democrats, too,” he said. “It’s not a party thing.”