A Senate committee quickly killed SB 1095, a bill introduced by Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax) that could have brought an early end to a five-year prohibition on regulators’ ability to review Dominion Virginia Power’s earnings and to order refunds where warranted. The prohibition, passed two years ago as part of 2015’s SB 1349 (Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach), will mean as much as a billion dollars in extra cash to the utility—money that would otherwise be returned to customers.
After losing the vote on SB 1095 in Senate Commerce and Labor, Petersen introduced SB 1593, a bill that would have prohibited campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion Power. He was forced to withdraw the bill when Senate leaders complained he had filed it late.
Score two for Dominion. But in case you thought the utility giant might choose to lie low for a while, consider another of this year’s bills: HB 2291 (Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City). The legislation allows Dominion to seek approval to charge customers for billions of dollars in nuclear power plant upgrades. Kilgore has collected $162,000 in campaign contributions from Dominion’s parent company over the years, even though he represents an area of the state that is not served by Dominion Virginia Power (meaning it won’t be his constituents paying for his bill). Astoundingly, the bill passed the House of Delegates with only two dissenting votes (cast by Mark Keam, D-Vienna, and Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke).
Obviously, there is a pattern here. It actually began at least as far back as 2014, when another Kilgore-sponsored bill passed allowing Dominion to shift onto its customers several hundred million dollars of nuclear development costs that otherwise would not have been recovered for many years, if ever. The legislation inspired much criticism, but little action.
Taken together, these legislative giveaways add up to enormous sums of money. The 2015 legislation involved as much as a billion dollars in customer payments that exceed the profit margin allowed by the State Corporation Commission, according to an estimate offered by one commissioner. In the absence of SB 1349, Dominion would likely have had to issue refunds, lower rates, or both.
At the time, Dominion claimed that the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan would impose huge costs on ratepayers unless the General Assembly acted to stop base rates from rising. Legislators weren’t told the real effect of SB 1349 would be to keep base rates from falling. And meanwhile, customers’ utility bills could continue to rise because base rates make up only a portion of monthly bills.
Petersen’s bill this year took notice of the fact that the Clean Power Plan is now highly unlikely to take effect. SB 1095 would have reinstated the SCC’s authority to review rates if and when the Clean Power Plan was deemed truly dead. This misses the mark only in being way too generous to Dominion. As the SCC has pointed out, the review freeze period will be over before the Clean Power Plan is slated to take effect, so SB 1349 could not possibly protect ratepayers from compliance costs anyway.
SB 1349 is currently being challenged in court as an unconstitutional abrogation of the SCC’s power. Two former Attorneys General, Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Andy Miller, have weighed in on the side of consumers. The current Attorney General, Democrat Mark Herring, was harshly critical of the bill when it was before the General Assembly, but now says he is obligated to defend the law.
SB 1349 passed the General Assembly two years ago amid great confusion about what was in the bill and what it all meant. Legislators padded it out with modest solar-energy and energy-efficiency provisions to make it palatable to skeptical Democrats and ensure it would be signed by Governor McAuliffe.
But this year, legislators have no such excuse. They cannot have missed the torrent of criticism the law inspired, or the point that Dominion won’t spend a dime of its ill-gotten gain on compliance with the Clean Power Plan. It is hard to see the 9-2 vote in Commerce and Labor to kill Petersen’s SB 1095 as anything but a blatant, bipartisan gift to Dominion. (The dissenting votes came from Republicans Dick Black and Stephan Newman.)
Dominion’s corrosive effect on Virginia politics is one of the main threads of a book published last year called Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century: The Price of Power. Author Jeff Thomas outlines a whole host of ways in which Virginia politics have become mired in corruption. SB 1349 is Exhibit A.
Now the unearned largesse for Dominion—and the ignominious end to Senator Petersen’s effort to rein in Dominion’s influence—have become an issue in this year’s governor’s race. Republicans Denver Riggleman and Corey Stewart and Democrat Tom Perriello are all taking aim at the connection between Dominion’s campaign spending and the billion-dollar boondoggle it received from SB 1349. If Kilgore’s HB 2291 passes the Senate this month, they will have another example on which to build their case that Dominion’s campaign donations have corrupted Virginia’s legislative process.
Legislators themselves publicly reject the idea of a causal relationship between the steady stream of campaign cash and their votes in favor of the bills, while privately acknowledging the sway Dominion holds over the General Assembly. Indeed, the comfortable fiction that campaign donations don’t affect a politician’s votes is such an insult to voters’ intelligence that the wonder is why it took so many years to become a campaign issue.
Given Wagner and Kilgore’s leadership roles in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, the issue might not seem like obvious fodder for the Republican primary campaign. Of course, Wagner is also running for governor on the Republican ticket, so the assaults of challengers Riggleman and Stewart might simply be tactics designed to undermine the competition. If voters respond, though, we can expect to hear a lot more discussion of government corruption.
In today’s chaotic political environment, Democrats who don’t speak out could find themselves under fire, too. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, the other Democrat running for Governor, has accepted over $97,000 from Dominion since 2008, according to VPAP.org, and so far seems not to have joined the chorus of voices criticizing Dominion’s influence.
The anti-corporate sentiments that fueled Bernie Sanders’ campaign have only intensified with Donald Trump’s embrace of bankers and oil barons. Democratic voters today are less likely than ever to forgive leaders of their own party for cozying up to big corporations. If either Democratic candidate for governor cedes the issue of clean government to the other—or to Republicans—this might be the election in which it matters.