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EYE ON ILLINOIS: Utility tax confusion a problem in need of legislative solution

Commonwealth Edison estimates it provides electricity to more than 70% of the state’s population. It increasingly feels like that’s not a good arrangement for any of them.

You already know about the active federal bribery investigation in which the utility agreed to pay a $200 million fine while prosecution is deferred three years. You’ve also read about the will they/won’t they threat from parent company Exelon involving threats to close nuclear plants before their expiration date, a ploy that usually results in government incentives because losing the generating stations would eradicate local economies.

But perhaps you, like me, recently learned about another aggravation — dozens of towns have taken ComEd to court seeking millions of dollars in utility taxes. It’s not a new issue, but the Chicago Tribune’s Ray Long laid the facts bare over the weekend: Municipalities can levy a tax on a utility bill. The customer pays the utility, which is supposed to disburse the tax portion to the governments.

Earlier this month about 80 communities sent a letter to ComEd saying the company is millions behind on payments, in large part blaming confusion about service addresses. ComEd confirmed a third-party auditor sent claims for those towns and also said the issue is complicated because each government has its own ordinance ComEd is required to follow.

This isn’t the largest problem facing Illinois, but it does warrant attention. Municipal budgets can be tough enough to balance without undue waiting for expected revenue. Taxpayers rarely enjoy paying any taxes, but even less so when they learn their honest money is just kind of out there somewhere, maybe funding its intended purpose, maybe just lost in the margins somewhere of a company with more than $15 billion in annual revenue.

One possible remedy is for state lawmakers to intervene with new statute forcing standardization of the process in hopes of clearing backlogs. Another possibility is some sort of address regulation that might solve front-end issues so there aren’t cases where ComEd fails to properly collect a tax, although that road seems rockier given how many layers of government could end up involved. Or we could wipe out the utility tax altogether and cities can find a new revenue source.

Customers don’t have a choice — they need to pay the electric bill regardless of its composure. Even collectively, municipalities don’t have enough leverage to force ComEd to move any faster or change policies. But having these questions unanswered is untenable for the governments and unfair to the people who just want the lights to work.

No one should be allowed to collect a tax if they can’t adequately document the dollars and cents. Lawmakers should get involved and work toward solutions.

• Scott T. Holland writes about state government issues for Shaw Media Illinois. Follow him on Twitter at @sth749. He can be reached at

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