Remember how bad it was before the Citizens Utility Board (CUB)?
It was the spring of 1983, and Gov. “Big Jim” Thompson was in a packed theater in southern Illinois pitching a tax increase—but people were more interested in what he would do about utility bills. What he said sparked applause from 200 Belleville-area residents.
“Let’s have a citizens utility board,” said Thompson, virtually assuring that the CUB Act, then before the General Assembly, would become law. He would sign it less than five months later, on Sept. 20, 1983.
It was the culmination of more than a year of hard work by consumers fed up with high utility bills, including 34-year-old activist Pat Quinn, who railed against “an unprecedented series of back-breaking” utility increases.
He led a statewide referendum movement in favor of creating a consumer watchdog group for utility customers. At the time, the idea was gaining popularity nationwide thanks to consumer advocates like Ralph Nader.
In Illinois, the headlines were dark those days. Facing criticism about cost over-runs, ComEd, which boosted profits by 35 percent in 1982, had a “continuing need for higher rates” largely fueled by power plant construction, the Chicago Tribune reported. The next summer, one Sunday front page warned: “Utility rates expected to double in 3 years.” There was talk of “a utility price disaster.”
No wonder frustration was palpable. “Send the flunky home!” someone shouted as a utility official tried to speak at one community meeting.
The birth of CUB came after advisory referendums were placed on the ballots of communities throughout
Illinois, thanks to the petition efforts of citizens. In November 1982, Chicago voted 4-1 in favor of a CUB, and in April 111 Illinois communities followed suit—sometimes by a pro-CUB margin of 14-1.
Such “whopping margins give us a lot of momentum to go down to the legislature,” Quinn said at the time.
He was right: By late May 1983 the House and Senate, which had observed the results of the advisory referendums, had both passed the CUB Act, setting the stage for Thompson’s signing.
CUB opened its doors in 1984. That year, the watchdog received a $100,000 state start-up loan, which the group paid back with, interest within two years.
The rest is history. Quinn, of course, went on to serve as governor and CUB went on to help save consumers more than $20 billion.