DU QUOIN, Ill. — For much of the haggling over electric rate relief, Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a man in the shadows. He sat out negotiations and then took his time reviewing the inch-thick agreement those talks produced, despite calls for quick action.

Blagojevich finally signed the relief package into law Tuesday with the stroke of his pen and was unapologetic for the wait, portraying himself as a wary consumer advocate standing up to bullying from utilities.

Even as he approved the measure, Blagojevich called for state lawmakers — including many he’s feuding with in his own party — to do even more to protect consumers from the electricity providers.

“Today is not the end; it is maybe the end of the beginning,” Blagojevich said in ceremoniously signing off on the bill that offers rebates to customers socked by steep electric price increases since January. “This is a good step forward, but it’s not a perfect solution.”

Good step in that the deal, negotiated by the state’s top Democrats, is at least some relief. Imperfect in that it doesn’t go far enough, the governor said without offering many details.

Tuesday’s bill signing ended a yearlong tug of war between the needs of consumers and power companies, softening the blow consumers felt from rates that spiked at the beginning of the year after a 10-year rate freeze. The measure rolls back about half of those increases through rebate checks and bill credits to Ameren customers, ensuring all of them at least $100, and includes bill credits for ComEd customers.

Still, Blagojevich wants more, seeking more use of Illinois coal in power plants and taking unspecified steps to ensure electricity prices won’t surge again. He also called for service guarantees for Ameren customers, arguing the company should be held accountable as utility ComEd is for damages consumers incur during long outages.

Ameren consumers, hit hardest by the price increases, should expect to start seeing rebate checks and bill credits in about two weeks, and soon will be able to use Ameren’s Web site to see exactly how much relief they’ll get, company spokesman Shelley Epstein said.

Ameren would work with legislators and the governor on other consumer benefits and protections as they come up, Epstein said.

“This was a long haul, and we’re glad it’s over,” Epstein said. “We’re glad to get this behind for our customers so we can move on.”

Getting it done was anything but harmonious.

Blagojevich’s signature wraps up an intense debate that began last fall over how to react to the end of the long electricity-rate freeze. Officials took no action before prices jumped in January, and their dispute dragged on for months afterward.

Ultimately the agreement reached in late July tries to most help those hit hardest by the rate increases and keep such huge spikes from happening again.

Some lawmakers and residents complained the relief package wasn’t enough, offering consumers back only a few dollars a month while the utilities providing the discounts and rebates still made big profits.

The plan also doesn’t block rates from rising over the next several years, which some argued another rate freeze could have prevented.

“It would be best if we got no (price) raise at all,” said Sen. Gary Forby, a Benton Democrat who was among the lawmakers pushing hardest for relief.

The governor drew criticism by not immediately signing the bill into law when he got it nearly a month ago.

Some feared his inaction could cost consumers millions of dollars in higher rates by negating the price of a contract Ameren had negotiated to buy power.

Blagojevich defended his long review, comparing himself to a careful customer standing up to pressure from a used-car dealer. Blagojevich said the “complicated” measure merited careful analysis by experts in his office.

The governor said he had other options, including possibly vetoing the deal or sending it back to lawmakers to be improved. But getting consumers some relief now, he said he decided, was “the best, prudent course.”

Negotiators are hopeful consumers see bigger benefits from moves made to keep prices as low as possible.

That includes scrapping the old auction system that set this year’s higher rates and creating a new Illinois Power Agency to help negotiate power prices. Blagojevich did not discuss the new agency, which was included at the insistence of House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago.

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