Peoples Gas suddenly is extraordinarily generous with campaign contributions
By Steve Daniels, Crain’s Chicago Business. November 1, 2018
With Chicagoans’ heating bills rising quickly due to unprecedented capital spending, the utility appears to be girding for fights next year in Springfield and the Chicago City Council.
Peoples Gas, under fire for a costly infrastructure program that’s rapidly raising the cost of winter heating for Chicagoans, is leaving as little to chance as possible.
In this election cycle, the Chicago natural gas utility has boosted campaign contributions by roughly five times its normal level, spreading more than $560,000 so far among numerous candidates for alderman, the state legislature and Illinois attorney general, according to filings with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
The unusually generous giving comes as Peoples’ Milwaukee-based parent, WEC Energy Group, girds for attempts in the Chicago City Council and potentially the state Legislature to force the utility to reduce its $300 million-a-year spending on replacing aging natural gas mains below the city’s streets.
A resolution Ald. George Cardenas introduced in the City Council earlier this year very recently was moved from the Rules Committee—known informally as the place ordinances go to die—to the Health and Environmental Protection Committee, which Cardenas chairs. The resolution calls for Peoples Gas CEO Charles Matthews to appear before the committee and explain why average Chicagoans’ winter heating bills last year were 80 percent higher than suburban households served by Nicor Gas.
A hearing is now expected early next year.
Likewise, legislation introduced in the Illinois House last year would have barred Peoples from continuing to impose a monthly surcharge on customers’ bills to help cover the costs of the massive infrastructure program. The bill went nowhere amid intense opposition from unions benefiting from the work. But that was before the stark disparity in city and suburban heating bills surfaced via a report in Crain’s in July.
The Illinois Commerce Commission, which regulates utilities, has done nothing to curtail Peoples’ spending despite Chairman Brien Sheahan’s allowance that many more Chicago households won’t be able to afford their heating bills if the present pace of the program continues. The ICC under Gov. Bruce Rauner has been particularly utility-friendly and decided it didn’t have the authority under state law to order Peoples to reduce its spending. That was despite legal advice to the contrary from Illinois Attorney Lisa Madigan’s office.
Peoples has been particularly generous, not surprisingly, with the Democratic candidate running to succeed Madigan, Peoples’ most vocal critic among state and local officials. Kwame Raoul has received $48,300 from Peoples Gas alone. That doesn’t include tens of thousands in contributions from individual executives and unions benefiting from the pipe-replacement work.
Raoul has declined to take a position on the issue of ballooning Chicago heating costs, saying he wants to talk to Madigan’s staff about it. After the election.
Another major beneficiary is House Speaker Michael Madigan, who will have a huge say in whether any legislative effort to rein in Peoples gets traction. Peoples has given $56,000 so far to Madigan and campaign committees he controls. In the cycles culminating in the 2016 and 2014 general elections, Peoples gave just $14,000 and $19,500, respectively, to Madigan and affiliated committees.
Larger than usual sums have gone to the campaign arms of Senate Democrats and House and Senate Republicans as well.
In the 2016 election cycle, Peoples and affiliates gave a total $127,251 to campaigns. In the two cycles before that, Peoples contributed $111,827 and $112,738, respectively.
In an email, a Peoples spokeswoman said, “Peoples Gas has always had an interest in seeing that quality candidates get elected to public office in Illinois.”
CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS AS PHILANTHROPY
She went on to compare campaign contributions to philanthropy. “As part of our continued commitment to building the communities we serve, we have increased our corporate citizenship activities on all fronts to represent the interests of our customers, employees and other stakeholders,” she wrote. “Our 2017 corporate giving total of $3 million is more than double the amount in 2015. We’ve also increased our corporate support for our financial assistance program, Share the Warmth, increasing the amount in grants awarded to customers from $736,000 in 2014 to $2.6 million in 2018 (through October).”
Peoples isn’t the only utility ramping up its political contributions, in part due to the competitive attorney general race. After her first run for attorney general, Lisa Madigan refused utility contributions and was a frequent industry critic on behalf of consumers.
As usual, Exelon, the state’s largest power generator, and Commonwealth Edison is the most generous industry donor to pols. It’s given $1.76 million in this cycle so far, and that’s not including donations from individual executives. In the 2016 and 2014 cycles, Exelon/ComEd gave $1.24 million and $961,893, respectively.
Nicor Gas, the largest natural gas utility in the state serving more than 2 million suburban customers, has contributed $281,000 so far in this cycle, with $19,050 of that going to Raoul. In the 2016 and 2014 cycles, Nicor gave $154,981 and $67,574, respectively.
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