Our previews of the newest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court’s civil docket continue with People ex rel. Madigan v. Illinois Commerce CommissionMadigan poses a question involving the jurisdiction of the Illinois Commerce Commission, which is responsible for regulating public utilities operating in the state: are volume-balancing-adjustment ("VBA") riders to approved rate schedules for natural gas permissible?

Here’s why the issue is important to public utilities and their customers. Utility rate-making relies to a considerable degree on forecasting the future: what are loads likely to be, what the weather should be like, population changes as people move in and out of the service area, energy efficiency, the effect of rising (or falling) gas prices on demand; all kinds of factors go into the mix. Inevitably, those forecasts are going to turn out to be incorrect. But the Commerce Commission approves a certain level of reasonable revenue for the utility, and when the assumptions that go into that calculus turn out to be off, things start to go wrong. At the micro level, for one example, it’s possible that customers might wind up "overpaying" when weather is colder than normal, and "underpaying" when weather is warmer than normal. At the macro level, utilities can miss their approved revenue recovery targets and wind up having to pursue more rate cases. VBA riders make both of those effects less likely by adjusting rates either up or down depending on whether the utility would otherwise overrecover or underrecover its target revenue. It does this by giving customers a credit when revenues are higher than expected, and applying a surcharge when revenues are lower than expected.

Nationwide, we have quite a bit of experience with various kinds of revenue decoupling; more than half the states either have some form of it or are considering it, and California first adopted it thirty-five years ago. Revenue decoupling offers a number of benefits, as recognized by the ICC, including reduced volatility in utility revenues and customers’ bills, greater equity because decoupling is based on actual revenues rather than estimates, and encouraging conservation measures by removing the direct link between increased sales and increased revenues.

A group of utilities asked the Commission to approve VBAs in 2007. After an evidentiary hearing, the Commission authorized Rider VBA as a four-year pilot program in 2008. The Attorney General appealed the Commission’s decision, but while that appeal was still pending, the Commission approved Rider VBA on a permanent basis in January 2012 (over the Attorney General’s objections).

Madigan is the appeal by the Attorney General and the Citizens’ Utility Board from that ruling. Before the Second District Appellate Court, the parties’ disputes began with the most fundamental issue of all: the standard of review. In Illinois (as in most states), the actions of the Commission are in almost every case given deferential review by the courts. The AG and the CUB argued that the deferential standard shouldn’t apply since the Commission had "departed from past practice" and made an error of law. The court disagreed, holding that the Commission’s findings of fact were presumptively true and its orders presumed reasonable on appeal.

The appellants challenged the Rider VBA on two grounds: (1) it was impermissible retroactive ratemaking; and (2) it violated the prohibition against single-issue ratemaking. Retroactive ratemaking is what it sounds like: providing refunds to customers when rates are too high and imposing surcharges when they’re too low. Single-issue ratemaking occurs when a rate is set based on a change to only one component of costs without considering whether changes to other costs might have offset the increase.

The Appellate Court held that the Rider VBA was not retroactive ratemaking. The VBA was not a modification enacted to correct an "error" — a determination that rates were too high or too low. VBA is a ratemaking methodology designed to ensure that the utilities maintain the approved level of revenue taking into account actual experience (as opposed to forecasts) with demand. As such, the VBA is not retroactive ratemaking, the Court found.

Nor did the Rider VBA amount to single-issue ratemaking, the Court concluded. In so holding, the Court distinguished its earlier decision in Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Illinois Commerce Commission, where the Court had held that riders are permissible only based on a showing of exceptional circumstances. ComEd had arisen in the context of traditional ratemaking, the Court found; revenue decoupling was a different approach. The Rider VBA didn’t provide for recovery of any specific cost, nor did it isolate any particular cost. Far from causing rates to fluctuate based on a single strand of the revenue requirement, as the appellants argued, revenue decoupling eliminated the link between sales and revenue, according to the Court. "We conclude that the revenue decoupling mechanism known as Rider VBA was approved by the Commission to guarantee that the Utilities recoup the costs for the infrastructure in which they prudently invested," the Court wrote, "not to ensure profits but to satisfy the distribution needs of their customers." For that reason, the Court affirmed the Commission’s order approving the Rider VBA.

We expect Madigan to be decided in the next six to eight months.