Senator Frank Wagner’s bill to permit Virginia’s largest utility to keep its books closed until 2023 cleared a Senate subcommittee last week, but not without a bruising. What Dominion Virginia Power thought would be an easy sell—a promise to freeze rates at their current level—is being widely criticized as another money grab from a company known for resorting to legislative maneuvers to hang on to overearnings. As a result, SB 1349 faces an uncertain future in full committee today, and if it passes, should expect rough treatment on the Senate floor.
As I explained last week, the bill plays on fears that the EPA’s carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan will be costly to implement. According to Senator Wagner and Dominion spokesman Dan Weekly, ratepayers need protection from jarring rate increases.
Of course, if the Clean Power Plan were really likely to raise costs, a for-profit company like Dominion would hardly want to give up the ability to raise rates. Dominion’s eager embrace of a rate freeze puts me in mind of Brer Rabbit’s pleading not to be thrown into the briar patch.
Last year Dominion got away with legislation allowing it to keep hundreds of millions of dollars in over-earnings, catching the press, the new Administration and many legislators flat-footed. It may get away with it again this year, but it won’t be pretty.
For one thing, the press is fully awake this time around. Several papers raised questions, and a hard-hitting article in the Washington Post correctly reframed the issue as whether Dominion should be allowed to escape routine public financial audits. The Post article also hit one of my favorite themes, the outsized influence Dominion wields in the state due to the campaign cash it lavishes on Republicans and Democrats alike. But then it did me one better, noting that Senator Wagner owns stock in Dominion Resources.
An article in the Virginian-Pilot put the value of that stock at $250,000. [Update: a February 2 AP story put the value of Wagner’s stock at only $5,000. Regardless of the actual amount, on February 3, the AP reported that, in response to the story, Wagner sold his Dominion stock.]
Meanwhile the Capital News Service had caught on that the “rate freeze” actually puts a floor, not a ceiling, on utility bills. “Proposal would let Dominion hike electric bills,” ran the headline in multiple newspapers.
So when a small subcommittee of Senate Commerce and Labor* met to consider the bill on Thursday, it was not the easy pass that Senator Wagner and Dominion expected. Lining up against the bill were environmental groups, the Attorney General’s office, SCC staff, and the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council.
Even Senator Dick Saslaw, usually a reliable ally of Dominion, expressed his discomfort with the bill and told Dominion spokesman Dan Weekly that he had better answer the concerns that had been expressed.
But then Saslaw and the other senators voted to move it along. Apparently, just being a bad bill wasn’t enough to kill it.
Update: the full committee of Senate Commerce and Labor reported SB 1349 on a 14-1 vote, with only Senator Newman dissenting. Action now moves to the full Senate, which has many saner heads. But lest optimism get the better of us, I should note that pretty much all of them take Dominion money too.
*This is the little hand-picked group I reported on that was supposed to form a joint subcommittee with House members to review all Clean Power Plan legislation. That’s not what happened. The joint subcommittee held two meetings that could best be described as EPA bash-fests, but only Wagner’s bill ended up assigned to the subcommittee, and only the Senate members met to consider his bill. The House members seem to have been unceremoniously dropped from the process altogether.
So what happened to the other climate bills? The Senate bills mostly ended up in Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the House bills mostly in Commerce and Labor (where they have been assigned to the Energy subcommittee). Why the change in plan? Beats me.