Who leads on climate and energy in the General Assembly—and how to get your legislators to up their game

Sierra Club Legislative Chair Susan Stillman presents the Good Government award to Senator Chap Petersen. Photo credit Sierra Club.

Each year the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club issues grades to Virginia legislators for their votes on bills related to energy and climate change. It’s not an easy task, especially in the House, where too many good bills die on unrecorded voice votes in small subcommittees, defying attempts to hold legislators accountable. Other bills become victims of party politics. In spite of this, the scorecard manages to separate the champions from the also-rans, not to mention the boneheads running in the opposite direction. Guest blogger Corrina Beall, Legislative Director for the Virginia Sierra Club, lays it all out for you.

 

By Corrina Beall

The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter 2017 Climate and Energy Scorecard grades the Commonwealth’s state-level elected officials on their votes during the 2017 General Assembly Session on legislation that will have an impact on Virginia’s energy policies and standards to fight climate change. Eighteen of Virginia’s 40 senators and 36 of 100 delegates received a score of 80 percent or better on the 2017 Scorecard, reflected in their A+, A and B grades.

Check out your Senator’s and Delegate’s grades and let them know what you think! Thank them for supporting good environmental policies, or let them know that they need to do better. Scorecard available online, here: http://www.sierraclub.org/virginia/general-assembly-scorecard

As a voter, your elected officials care about your opinions even when you disagree. Regardless of party affiliation, your legislator will be interested to know that passionate environmentalists live in his or her district. Even if you never thought it was possible, you may be able to find some common ground. Talk with your legislator about shared values, and from there, the outcome of a friendly conversation about how we govern is anybody’s guess.

Legislators at all ends of the political spectrum need to hear from environmentalists who live in the districts they represent. The environment isn’t a partisan issue: everyone wants clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and to protect those resources for future generations.

Nine legislators deserve your special thanks this year for their work to protect our environment our air, water or land during the 2017 Legislative Session. Seven will be awarded by are receiving awards from the Virginia Chapter this summer:

  1. Senator Chap Petersen, Good Government Award
  2. Senator Scott Surovell, Water Champion Award
  3. Delegate Mark Keam, Energy Freedom Award
  4. Senator Jennifer Wexton, Energy Freedom Award
  5. Delegate Rip Sullivan, Legislative Leader Award
  6. Senator Jeremy McPike, Environmental Justice Award
  7. Delegate Kaye Kory, Environmental Justice Award

In addition, Senators Amanda Chase and Richard Stuart will be recognized for outstanding contributions on specific bills that help protect Virginia’s water quality from the consequences of our fossil fuel dependency.

Here is the full run-down:

Senator Richard Stuart (R-28) has led on water quality issues in coastal Virginia during his tenure in the Virginia Senate. Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in 1896 in Virginia, it is estimated that seven thousand oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state. Until 1950, there were no permitting or environmental requirements of well operators– and wells no longer in use were not plugged or closed, but simply abandoned. These abandoned wells, and those that are abandoned by insolvent companies, are called “orphan” wells.

According to the latest state review of oil and natural gas environmental regulations, there are at least 130 orphaned wells in Virginia. Orphaned wells that predate regulation often go unnoticed because their locations were never recorded. According to the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), the cost of plugging an orphaned well is between $50,000 and $60,000. It took fifteen years for DMME to accumulate sufficient funds to complete a project of plugging seven wells.

Virginia’s orphan well program is funded by fees charged to well operators when they apply for a well site permit. The fee was set at $50 in 1990, and remained stagnant until this General Assembly Session. Sen. Stuart introduced successful legislation Senate Bill 911 that will increase the fee from $50 to $200.

Senator Chap Petersen (D-34) showed remarkable leadership by proposing to repeal a statute enacted in 2015 (the now-infamous SB 1349), which froze electric rates at levels that are designed to allow Dominion and Appalachian Power to over-collect money from customers. Virginians are now paying too much for their electricity because our largest utilities are earning unjustified profits. Petersen’s bill would have unfrozen utility rates, and allowed for base rate reviews for both utilities, ultimately resulting in lower electric bills and possibly a refund to consumers.

Additionally, Petersen sponsored Senate Bill 1593, which would ban political contributions from regulated monopolies. Petersen’s stand brought the issue of money in politics to the forefront, a focus that has spilled over into the gubernatorial race.

Senator Scott Surovell (D-36) introduced successful legislation this year to place a moratorium on coal ash disposal permits until the issue has been studied and information has been provided to the regulating entity, the Department of Environmental Quality. Senate Bill 1398 requires Dominion to assess a range of alternatives for disposing or recycling coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for electricity.

Despite the dangers associated with coal ash, it remains both ever-present and under-regulated. Coal ash is the second largest industrial waste stream in the United States. Vast quantities of poorly-contained ash sit in numerous pits along many of the Commonwealth’s most prized rivers, including the James, the Clinch, and the Potomac Rivers. In many cases, coal ash disposal sites are located upstream from popular fishing, kayaking, and hunting destinations.

The bill is an important step toward protecting every Virginian’s right to clean water. Senator Amanda Chase (R-11) co-patroned the bill. Chase raised the profile of this issue and rallied support around this measure, and after a weakened version of the bill passed in both chambers, she pushed for the Governor to strengthen the bill by amending it to include a prohibition on future issuance of permits until the studies are submitted to DEQ in December of 2017.

At the Request of the Virginia Distributed Solar Collaborative, Senator Jennifer Wexton (D-33) and Delegate Mark Keam (D-35) introduced companion legislation to establish community-owned renewable energy programs in Virginia with Senate Bill 1208 and House Bill 2112. Community-owned projects are not legal in Virginia, but could provide the option to power homes and businesses with clean energy for renters, apartment and condo dwellers, low-income families, and buildings that have unfavorable characteristics for on-site generation like deep shade.

Development of wind or solar energy that provides power to multiple community members leverages an economy of scale to reduce the price for each individual customer. By owning or leasing the solar or wind system, each community member taking part in the project can reduce his or her utility bills. Although these bills failed, they helped legislators understand what a true “community solar” bill looks like, and have helped set the stage for future efforts.

Delegate Rip Sullivan (D-48) introduced a suite of bills on energy efficiency this year in addition to a bill to establish renewable energy property tax credits in Virginia, HB 1632. Sullivan’s bills include HB 1703 (energy efficiency goals), HB 1636 (adjusting energy efficiency programs’ criteria for approval by the SCC), and HB 1465. Only HB 1465 passed.

House Bill 1465, which will become law in July, requires the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) to track and report on the state’s progress towards meeting its energy efficiency goal. Virginia has a voluntary goal, set in 2007, of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent by 2022, and we are only a tenth of the way there. Despite the modesty of our goal, at our current pace we will not attain it. This legislation requires that the Governor, the General Assembly and the Governor’s Executive Committee on Energy Efficiency will receive an annual report on our progress. Sullivan’s bill will provide a tool to hold the Commonwealth accountable for reaching our energy efficiency goal, and increase government transparency.

Senator Jeremy McPike (D-29) and Delegate Kaye Kory (D-38) introduced Senate Bill 1359 and its companion, House Bill 2089, which require every public school board in the state to adopt a plan to test for lead in each school’s drinking water. Children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead poisoning, but often do not look sick. Lead in the body can cause brain damage and developmental problems including learning disabilities, impulsive behavior, poor language skills and memory problems. This bill will become law in July.

Does Dominion buy votes? Sure, but not the way you think.

By Djembayz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26128831

Observers, critics, and even legislators agree that utility giant Dominion Resources is the single most powerful force in the Virginia General Assembly. It gets the legislation passed that it wants, and it almost always succeeds in killing bills it doesn’t like. Media stories point out one reason for this huge influence: the company gives more money to political campaigns than does any other individual or corporation.

But it’s more complicated than that. Dominion distributes its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike according to rank and power, not according to party affiliation, and not according to how they vote. Legislators stay on the gravy train even when they occasionally vote against Dominion’s interests. (No lawmaker consistently votes against Dominion’s interests. That would be weird. It is, after all, a utility.)

In the General Assembly, the most money goes to members of the Senate and House Commerce and Labor Committees, which hear most of the bills affecting energy policy. But Dominion also donates to the campaigns of nearly every incumbent lawmaker, regardless of committee assignment. It does not, however, donate to their challengers. Only to the victors go the spoils.

So today let’s look at some of the lucky recipients of Dominion’s money. This information comes from the Virginia Public Access Project, vpap.org, supplemented by information available on the General Assembly website. 

Legislators whose campaigns have received more than $50,000 from Dominion (lifetime)

Recipient Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Sen. Saslaw D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Del. Kilgore R 1    Southwest 162,000 35,000
Sen. Deeds D 25   Piedmont 109,700 1,500
Sen. Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula/Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Del. Cox* R 66   Central 90,799 29,099
Sen. Wagner R 7    Tidewater 79,735 26,885
Del. Plum** D 36   NoVa 78,750 4,000
Del. Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Sen. Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000

Notes:

  • Lifetime totals may include more than one campaign committee. Creigh Deeds collected money for Delegate, Senate, AG and Governor’s races, which explains how he racked up this much in donations; he was also formerly a member of Commerce and Labor, but by 2014 he’d been removed from the committee.
  • I chose 2014-2015 as a single election cycle comparison because both House and Senate seats were up that year.
  • *Cox is not on Commerce and Labor but is House Majority Leader, a position that propelled him into the ranks of top Dominion recipients.
  • **Plum is a former member of House Commerce and Labor and currently a member of the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation. (Other Commission members include Delegates Kilgore, Hugo, Miller, Villanueva and James; and Senators Norment, Lucas, Saslaw and Wagner.)

Saslaw, Kilgore, Norment, Wagner, Hugo and Obenshain all sit on the Commerce and Labor committees that hear most of the bills affecting Dominion’s business dealings. Wagner chairs Senate C&L and runs it as his personal fiefdom; Saslaw did the same when Democrats held the Senate. He will be Chairman again if control switches back. In addition to sitting on Senate C&L, Norment is the Senate Majority Leader.

Kilgore chairs House C&L, and like Wagner, he controls not just the docket but usually the outcome of votes. Hugo is House Majority Caucus Chairman in addition to being a member of C&L.

These powerful men (they are all men, and all white) get the biggest donations, but anyone with a seat on the committee can expect to collect donations from Dominion.

Dominion donations to Commerce and Labor Committee members

Senate

Senator Party District number and region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 election cycle
Wagner (Chair) R 7  Tidewater 81,985 26,885
Saslaw (former Chair, Minority Leader) D 35  NoVa (Fairfax/Falls Church) 298,008 57,500
Norment R 3    Middle Peninsula to Tidewater 107,740 21,500
Newman R 23 Roanoke area 20,500 3,000
Obenshain R 26  Shenandoah Valley 51,000 5,000
Stuart R 28  Fredericksburg area 20,750 6,000
Stanley R 20  Southside 19,500 9,000
Cosgrove R 14  Tidewater 7,000 2,000
Chafin R 38  Southwest 10,500 6,500
Dance D 16  Central 25,692 9,000
Lucas D 18  Tidewater 31,950 5,200
McDougle R 4    Central 47,250 10,000
Black R 13  NoVa (outer suburbs) 9,750 1,000
Sturtevant* R 10  Central 4,000
Spruill D 5    Tidewater 35,419 4,200

*Sturtevant joined the Senate in 2016.

House Commerce and Labor Special Subcommittee on Energy

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Kilgore (Chair) R 1    Southwest 162,000 (top) 35,000
Byron R 22  Southwest 24,500 4,000
Ware, L. R 65  Central 26,800 4,000
Hugo R 40  NoVa 54,400 11,000
Marshall, D.W. R 14  Southside 20,250 5,000
Cline R 24  West (Lexington area) 13,750 3,000
Miller, J R 50  NoVa (western suburbs) 29,000 7,500
Loupassi R 68  Central 20,000 5,000
Habeeb R 8    Southwest 12,500 5,000
Villanueva R 21  Tidewater 11,000 3,500
Tyler D 75  Southside 17,000 4,000
Keam D 35  NoVa 8,750 2,750
Lindsey D 90  Tidewater 3,300 2,300

Other House Commerce and Labor members (not on energy subcommittee)

Delegate Party District number, region Total $ from Dominion 2014-2015 cycle
Bell, Robert B. R 58  Piedmont 14,500 3,500
Farrell* R 56  Central 0 0
O’Quinn R 5    Southwest 6,500 3,000
Yancey R 94  Tidewater 10,000 3,500
Ransone R 99  Northern Neck 8,500 2,500
Ward, J D 92  Tidewater 23,500 5,000
Filler-Corn D 41  NoVa 10,500 3,000
Kory D 38  NoVa 6,250 1,000
Bagby D 74  Central 2,000 1,000
  • Names appear in the order they are listed on the General Assembly website for each committee. In the Senate, this reflects seniority; in the House, Republicans come first, and then seniority.
  • *Peter Farrell is the son of Thomas Farrell, II, CEO of Dominion Resources. He gets no cash from Dominion and abstains on votes that directly affect the utility. Those who worry that the family relationship might keep him off the gravy train will be relieved to know his dear old dad gives his campaign $10,000 a year, and more than a dozen other top Dominion executives also pitch in hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece annually to make sure he stays on the public payroll.

Compared to whom?

One problem with singling out Dominion is that it is only the biggest and most conspicuous player of the influence game. It has plenty of company. Appalachian Power Company (APCo) also donates generously to legislators in leadership positions and those on C&L. And our utilities are not exceptions. Richmond is awash in corporate cash.

So let’s look at Appalachian Power Company’s top dozen Senate and House recipients in 2014-2015. We can compare these amounts to what these guys (all men again) received from Dominion and Altria, another large Virginia company that isn’t in the utility business. And just for fun, I’ve added columns showing donations from the solar industry trade group MDV-SEIA and the environmental group Sierra Club.

Recipient Party APCo Dominion Altria MDV-SEIA** Sierra Club***
Sen. Saslaw D 20,000 57,500 27,500 1,000 0
Sen. McDougle R 15,000 10,000 26,500 0 0
Sen. Wagner R 12,500 26,885 10,500 2,500 0
Sen. Norment R 12,500 21,500 35,000 2,500 0
Del. Hugo R 10,000 11,000 2,500 500 0
Del. Cox R 10,000 29,099 0 0 0
Del. Kilgore R 7,500 35,000 2,000 0 0
Del. Miller R 6,500 7,500 2,000 0 0
Sen. Alexander* D 4,500 5,000 1,500 0 0
Del. Habeeb R 4,000 5,000 500 0 0
Sen. Obenshain R 2,500 5,000 1,000 0 0
Sen. Stanley R 3,600 9,000 6,000 0 0
  • *Kenny Alexander was a member of Senate Commerce and Labor in 2014 and 2015.
  • **MDV-SEIA donated to only five candidates in the 2014-2015 election cycle. In addition to the contributions shown, the association gave $2,500 to Delegate Villanueva.
  • ***Sierra Club-Va. Chapter made a total of $33,410 in campaign contributions during the 2014-2015 election cycle, but very few of its recipients sit on Commerce & Labor. Of those who do, Delegate Villanueva received the largest donation, $200. Sierra Club Legislative Director Corrina Beall notes that “most of Sierra Club’s donations are in-kind donations rather than cash donations. Our contributions are made in staff time spent communicating with our members and supporters about candidates who we have endorsed.”

What do you get if you’re not a big shot or on C&L?

Dominion gives to almost everyone; after all, bills that pass committee still have to go to the floor. I chose half a dozen lesser-known delegates at random to compare to the Commerce and Labor committee members. All have been in the General Assembly for at least six years.

Here’s what they got for the 2014-2015 legislative cycle. I threw in APCo and Altria for comparison.

$ From Dominion $ From APCo $ from Altria
Anderson, R (R) 2,000 275 1,000
Edmunds, J   (R) 1,500 0 1,000
Knight, B (R) 3,500 1,275 1,000
McQuinn, D (D) 3,750 1,500 500
Watts, V (D) 2,000 500 1,000
Helsel, G (R)* 0 0 1,000
  • *Helsel received $2,500 from Dominion in 2011-2012 but nothing since, and has never received money from APCo.

So the little people did about as well as the C&L members who aren’t on the energy subcommittee, but less well than the subcommittee members.

What does the money buy?

Legislators swear they don’t allow the money to influence their votes. And yet it seems obvious that donors expect that very thing. There’s a clear gap between what the donors think their money buys, and what legislators think they give in return. You might call this the “credibility gap.” And yet as I’ve observed before, if a few thousand bucks is enough to buy a vote, then the real scandal isn’t that legislators can be bought, but that they can be bought so cheaply. Obviously, there is more to it.

Defenders of unlimited campaign contributions like to think donors give money to candidates whose views they share, or to lawmakers who have done a good job in office and need the money to win election and continue doing a fabulous job. That seems to describe Sierra Club’s approach, but it certainly doesn’t describe Dominion’s. Dominion gives money to everyone, and almost none of the recipients need the money to stay in office.

According to VPAP, more than 50% of Virginia legislators ran unopposed during the last election. Only 10% of members had races that could be described as anything close to competitive (defined as a margin of less than 10%). Even if you totally approve of the job these legislators are doing, you don’t need to give them money to make sure they keep their seats. The only purpose of contributions to these members is to buy influence by helping them build power.

House Commerce and Labor Chairman Terry Kilgore, for example, has not had an opponent since 2007, when he took 72% of the vote. Yet since 2008, he has collected $135,500 from Dominion, among almost $2 million in contributions from all sources.

What does he do with all that money? VPAP shows that during the 2014-2015 season he spent some $80,000 on staff and political consultants, $50,000 on legal and accounting, $35,000 on fundraising (hello?), $23,000 on something called “Community Goodwill,” $22,000 on mail, printing and postage, $12,000 on “Legislative Session,” $11,000 on travel and meals, $28,000 on advertising, signage, and phone calls, and another $15,000 or so on other campaign-related things. All this for a part-time legislator running unopposed.

But the biggest expense Kilgore reported was not for his campaign, but for the campaigns of fellow Republicans. Donations to other candidates and party committees in 2014 and 2015 added up to about $174,000. Dominion’s money indirectly helps candidates who might have competitive campaigns; directly, it helps Kilgore build power and influence for himself.

We could do a similar analysis on the Democratic side with Senator Saslaw, who draws at least token opposition in every election but has never won by less than a 17-point margin. He still collected over a million dollars in campaign contributions in 2014-2015, and spent all but a fraction of it on donations to party committees and other candidates.

In both cases, and for all the other top recipients of Dominion’s cash, the campaign donations have nothing to do with candidates getting elected, and everything to do with securing the loyalty of legislative power brokers who, by doling out money themselves, can deliver the votes on Dominion-backed bills when needed. Rank-and-file legislators don’t vote for a Dominion bill because they got a $1,000 donation. They vote for a bill when their party leader tells them to, especially when that leader can remind them he’s helped direct tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

And then there’s this troubling aspect . . .

I’d be remiss not to mention one other peculiarity of Virginia election law, which is that candidates are not prohibited from using campaign money for personal expenses. The Washington Post ran a series of outraged editorials about this a few years ago that is worth looking up (I wrote about it here). This same practice cost now-Vice President Mike Pence an election way back in 1990, when records showed Pence used campaign donations to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses. But here in Virginia, the Post’s revelations about Delegate Hugo paying his cell phone bills with campaign money produced neither repercussions nor changes in the law.

Some legislators introduce legislation every year to ban the use of campaign cash for private gain; every year it fails in an unrecorded subcommittee vote. See, e.g., Delegate Marcus Simon’s HB 1446 this year.

Why doesn’t anyone turn down the money?

It’s pretty hard to find legislators who don’t take Dominion’s money. The vast majority who do includes Senator Chap Petersen, who made news this year first by calling for a repeal of the 2015 boondoggle that will net Dominion a billion-dollar windfall at customer expense, and when that bill failed (in Senate Commerce & Labor, ahem), by calling for a ban on campaign contributions from public service corporations like Dominion. Petersen received $2,500 from Dominion in the 2014-2015 cycle, and another $1,000 in 2016. Of course, that was before the 2017 session brouhaha.

One legislator who has sworn off Dominion’s money is Delegate Rip Sullivan, an Arlington Democrat known for his bills to improve Virginia’s dismal achievements on energy efficiency—bills that Dominion opposes when they come before Commerce and Labor. (The only efficiency bill that passed this year is one from Senator Dance that merely requires tracking of energy efficiency progress. Sullivan’s identical House bill was killed in the House energy subcommittee.)

I asked Sullivan why he doesn’t take Dominion’s money. I liked his answer so much that I’ll give him the last word:

“I have very publicly made clear from the day I announced for the HOD that I would not take any money from Dominion. I have been equally clear that a major part of my agenda in RVA relates to climate and renewable energy–as you know, I’ve introduced numerous bills on renewable energy tax credits, community solar, energy efficiency, etc. . . .

“I have also made clear that I understand the reality that to make progress on these issues in the GA I will need to interact and hopefully work with Dominion. And I have tried to establish and maintain relationships there to hopefully facilitate dialogue, understanding and hopefully progress on environmental issues. But I never want there to be any question about where–or with whom–I stand on these issues, and I don’t want anyone questioning my motives or actions with any suggestion about getting money from Dominion. And, of course, I want Dominion to understand that I am not beholden to them in any way. Frankly, it’s just cleaner (pardon the pun) to not take Dominion money, and shame on me if I can’t find somewhere else anyway to raise the thousand bucks they’d give me.”