A few days into Virginia’s 2018 legislative session, a Democratic representative named Sam Rasoul stood on the storey of the state House and gave a speech straight from the angry populist heart of his party’s new national platform. It wasn’t just a criticism of corporate monopoly, although it was surely was that. It was a jeremiad against the politics of monopoly, wherein legislators at all levels truckle to the very entities they have both the power and the popular support to regulate.
The subject at hand was a reform endeavour aimed at Dominion Energy Virginia, a longtime foe on the part of states consumer advocates, anti-corruption activists and environmentalists. Dominion had already employed its considerable influence to kill off two bills in the nation Senate that were designed to bring the state monopoly to heel. But there was a larger dynamic at work: Since the election of Donald Trump, Democrat have begun to fashion themselves into the anti-monopoly party. This has constructed for welcome rhetorical flourishes about the evils of corporate concentration, but the question of how the working party would respond legislatively to these new priorities has in big portion gone unanswered.
In Virginia, the Nov. 7 election swept into agency a band of antitrust crusaders the likes of which the state had not seen in decades. Rasoul was the only incumbent in a group of 13 victorious House Democrats who had pledged not to accept campaign gifts from Dominion and Appalachian Power, the other state-regulated electric utility.
The success of these candidates devoted Rasoul and others hope that 2018 would be the year that lawmakers ultimately stood up to monopolies in general, and Dominion in particular. Rasoul and three other lawmakers who took the pledge went on to form the People’s Caucus, a nonpartisan the protection of consumers and campaign finance reform bloc whose members pledge to refuse contributions from state-regulated utility companies.
Here in Richmond, then, was an early test of the sturdiness of the new anti-monopoly plank in the Democrats’ platform.
I’d be willing to guess that nobody on the House floor has ever called a bill related to Dominion corrupt. Quentin Kidd, Christopher Newport University blockquote >
As the session got underway, Rasoul, a smiley maverick from Roanoke, sensed that Dominion’s lobbying and charm offensive had some of the freshman lawmakers’ heads spinning. He tried to regain the momentum by expanding the bounds of the debate. “I stimulated the calculated decision that we have to kick this wound wide open and make clear that this is not going to be business as usual, ” he recalled.
And so Rasoul did something out of the ordinary: He blamed his colleagues. “When we allow for these monopolies … but we give the constitutional authority to the[ regulatory bureau] to protect the ratepayers, and then turn right around and pass a bill to peel back that very protection, it’s no wonder why people are frustrated, ” he declared. “It’s no wonder why we were able to commit no other explanation other than’ This law was a corrupt law.’”
In the genteel halls of power in Richmond, Rasoul’s blunt critique of his colleagues’ coziness with monopolies ruffled more than a few featherings. “I’d be willing to guess that nobody on the House floor has ever called a bill relevant to Dominion corrupt, ” said Quentin Kidd, a Virginia politics expert at Christopher Newport University. “Having it happen does represent a tectonic shifting in Virginia’s political landscape.”
A tectonic change, perhaps, but not enough of one to win so much as a committee election. There are lessons here for Democrats newly energized on the issue of corporate concentration. Bringing monopolies back into a mainly discarded regulatory framework won’t is very easy. The status quo is durable since that is lucrative for a lot powerful actors. In the case of Virginia, undermining the prerogatives of Dominion signifies undermining the prerogatives of fellow legislators, too; for Democrats in the Virginia House and Senate, there’s even a perception that it could entail suffering their own chances at recapturing appeals chamber in 2019.
Rasoul and the neo-Brandeis caucus in the Virginia legislature failed in this round of the work of rein in Dominion, in part because the public monopoly has long benefited from a different kind of marketplace distortion: political monopsony. When it comes to votes on energy regulation, Dominion is the only buyer in town.
The’ Ultimate Irony’ Of Pro-Monopoly Democrat
The Democratic Party threw corporate monopoly at the heart of “A Better Deal, ” the platform it released in July. The issue was a throwback just as surely as the motto was — the age-old anti-bigness of the New Deal, recast for an age in which the downsides of bigness had become undeniable. The Democrats’ argument was simple: Excessively big corporations, with the power to squeeze not only customers but workers and small and medium-sized companies, are an engine of inequality.
Among other things, the working party embraced a higher legal threshold for the was approved by corporate consolidations and a “2 1st-century trust buster, ” or antitrust czar, to enforce new regulations.
“We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurt both consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces rivalry, ” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer( D-N.Y .) wrote in a New York Times op-ed touting the plan.
This was a rhetorical reversal of a pro-monopoly consensus that had held since the late 1960 s. Lawyers, economists and politicians in both parties laid the groundwork for decades of mega-mergers and anti-competitive practises by market presidents. An antitrust orthodoxy based on safeguarding and encouraging market competition committed lane to one based solely on customer welfare, i.e. lower costs — when antitrust concerns were considered at all.
The result has been an anti-democratic economy in which a few big players predominate entire industries. For example, Google and Facebook take in 85 percent of internet advertising dollars, effectively allowing them to prescribe terms to content creators. And in the airline industry, which once had nine major competitors, four companies now sell 80 percent of tickets.
A growing torso of research suggests that corporate amalgamation has depressed employee pay, in particular in less populous regions where consolidation has reduced the already small number of employers. It has interrupted the geographic distribution of wealth, enabling a handful of coastal enclaves to boom even as the middle of the country fights.
To me the Democratic Party represents people fighting against the aggregation of power and wealth in the hands of a few people. Virginia state Sen. Chap Petersen( D) blockquote >
While national Democrats and a new cohort of liberal policy experts are trying to broaden the public understanding about the effects of corporate amalgamation, the fight in Virginia is at once simpler and more challenging.
Reformers here have their visions set on taming the state’s utility monopolies, which, unlike Amazon and Google, are literal monopolies operating with the bles of the state.
Dominion and its predecessor, the Virginia Electric Power Company, or VEPCO, have long outlines the indignation of the state’s populists.
The heyday of the anti-Dominion motion was in the 1970 s. At that time, “Howlin’” Henry Howell, a Democratic country lawmaker turned lieutenant governor who is widely considers the state’s most successful left populist politician, produced the fight for stiffer regulation of VEPCO and won refunds for ratepayers. In 1977, Howell upset the establishment by nabbing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with the assistance of organized labor and African-American groups. He campaigned on a platform of taking on the “Big Boys, ” including VEPCO, which he playfully dubbed the “Very Expensive Power Company.”
But Howell objective up losing the governor’s race, a overcome for his populist ideology as well. With his loss, Virginia’s anti-monopoly motion went into hibernation, taking a back seat to the pro-corporate consensus in both parties for the better part of four decades.
It would reawaken in 2017, due to rising outrage with Dominion’s pricing and environmental practices, and a general anger at the implications of fund, brought into focus by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, over the state’s politics.
“What’s happened in the last two decades is that the Democratic Party has evolved in such a way that it’s very skeptical of business, monopoly business and the coziness it has with legislators, ” Kidd said.
On the one hand, the fact that the anti-monopoly battle in Virginia is centered on public utilities induces winning accountability more challenging, since the electric power industry is one where even passionate antitrust advocates belief monopolies are sometimes necessary to ensure people have dependable access to power.
At the same time, absent any need to compete for consumers, government regulation of prices is that much more urgent. And in those circumstances, a state’s abdication of its regulatory authority is all the more egregious, according to Virginia Sen. Chap Petersen( D ), the most prominent Dominion critic in the government Senate.
“The number one point I’d like to make — I’d like to make it in Virginia, and I’d like to make it nationally — is that public monopolies should not be writing their own regulatory laws, ” Petersen said.
Petersen, the vice chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic caucus, considers it the “ultimate irony” that Virginia Democrat have not yet made antitrust a “party issue.”
“To me the Democratic Party represents people fighting against the aggregation of power and wealth in the hands of a few people, ” he said. “As Democrat … we believe in giving people a chance , not just the powerful people.”
The Virginia Exception
The utility corporations that furnish power to customers across the country typically operate as monopolies, because it is not profitable enough for a company to compete for customers while maintaining and operating the infrastructure needed to deliver power.
That generates a number of problems for consumers, though, since rival is ordinarily what continues prices low. Some states and metropolis have responded to the challenge by taking over private utilities and operating them directly.
However, states and metropolis typically address the inherent problems associated with monopoly through regulation. In exchange for an exemption from antitrust statutes, state governments get the final say in these monopolies’ utility rates. These regulators have the authority to approve or disapprove of rate hikes, with the goal of ensuring that the companies do not elevate rates higher than is necessary to provide an attractive return for equity holders. If a regulator determines that a company has been overcharging patrons, it can also order a refund.
Until lately, Virginia functioned in much the same way, at the least on paper. Dominion predominates the household utility market, rendering power to some 2.5 million the house and industries — more than two-thirds of the state’s energy clients. Virginians living in Dominion’s domain cannot choose a different utility; neither can customers of Appalachian Power, the second-largest utility, or those who receive their power from one of 11 energy cooperatives in other parts of the government. But Virginia’s State Corporation Commission maintained a watchful eye with biannual reviews of the utilities to make sure the rates they accused their clients, and the building projects they initiated, were justified.
Then, in February 2015, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed a bipartisan statute enacted by the GOP-controlled Virginia parliament that effectively robbed the SCC of its ability to do its job for six years.
The legislation froze Dominion and Appalachian Power’s base utility rates through 2020 and 2021, respectively, and simultaneously deprived the country utility regulator of the power to review the monopolies’ finances through those times.
On its face, the so-called “rate-freeze” bill devoted both Virginia’s biggest utilities and their customers a square deal: frozen rates in exchange for a hiatus of regulatory oversight.
And Dominion claimed it needed the extra breathing room to comply with the now-defunct Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration initiative that required utilities to switch to cleaner power sources.
In Virginia, that’s out the window, and the ratepayer is left comprising the pouch as a result. John Howat, National Consumer Law Center blockquote >
But critics believed Dominion and Appalachian had use their political clout to lock in high base rates and avoid having to lower them in years where reference is earnings ballooned. The law likewise spared the company oversight on the substantial fees not included in the base rate that typically form about 40 percent of a monthly bill.
Sure enough, the SCC may be in September that Dominion collected excess earnings in 2016 that would have be necessary to to refund $ 133 million to clients were it not for the 2015 statute. Had Dominion not expensed the cost of a coal ash cleanup, a decision that the SCC previously would have been able to challenge, the company would’ve been on the hook for rebates ranging from $396 million to $426 million.
In addition, the SCC’s report indicates its best effort at oversight without the ability to actually examination Dominion’s books, as it has the potential to do prior to the rate-freeze statute. It likewise does not include potential over-earnings in 2017.
Consumer advocates were astounded that a utility monopoly had successfully shepherded a statute that shielded it from regulation — even temporarily.
“What Dominion was able to accomplish in 2015 is pretty remarkable, ” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, senior policy lawyer at the Washington-based Consumer Union.
It has little if any precedent in other countries, where utilities are also frequently powerful political armies, according to Baker-Branstetter.
“I’m not aware of another case where this has happened on this scale — certainly not in recent remembrance, ” she said.
John Howat, senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center, offered a damning assessment.
“In most nations, the regulator has at least the option of doing its chore. They can issue orderings and decisions and open their own proceedings. There are all kinds of avenues to attain the regulatory responsibilities that these statutorily approved bureaux have, ” Howat said. “In Virginia, that’s out the window, and the ratepayer is left holding the purse as a result.”
Ashley Brown, a former Ohio public utility commissioner who are currently heads the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, “re just saying that”, as a rule, stripping regulators of decision-making power is “poor public policy.”
“If the legislature wants to have hearings about what the regulator is do, that’s fine, they have every right to do that, ” Brown said. “But to deprive them of the powers that they need to carry out their occupation is not a great idea.”
Rolling Back A’ Corrupt’ Law ? strong>
Even before the SCC’s report showing that the 2015 rate-freeze statute was preventing a massive refund to ratepayers, the legislation incurred bipartisan blowback. Liberal consumer groups joined conservatives angry about the specter of a profit-making entity accusing customers without either rivalry or regulation to keep costs in check.
When industrial electricity customers sued the SCC to challenge the constitutionality of the rate-freeze law, former government Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who heads the hard-line Senate Conservatives Fund, co-authored an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on behalf of the Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council.( The Virginia Supreme Court came down against the plaintiffs in a 6-1 ruling in September .)
“From a conservative standpoint, what bothers me here is the cronyism, one, and the further difference from something approaching free-market pricing as we can achieve, ” Cuccinelli told HuffPost. “It injures everybody — it hurts the poorest of the poor, it hurts business, it hurts opportunity.”
Cuccinelli’s remark about “cronyism” refers to the lane Dominion has use its considerable fiscal largesse to get its lane in the Virginia legislature.
Virginia’s lax campaign finance rules attain the company’s occupation a lot easier. The state permits unlimited campaign donations from corporations and individuals.
Since 1996, when the Virginia Public Access Project began compiling campaign finance data, the company has donated $11.1 million to Virginia politicians and political committees in both parties — more than any other private-industry donor. This was the subject of Sam Rasoul’s Jan. 17 speech.
More subtly, Dominion exercises its influence through its technical expertise and sheer workforce. Virginia has a part-time parliament that convenes from January to March for marathon committee meetings and floor referendums. Few lawmakers have the funding, personnel or time to adequately vet the claims of Dominion lawyers and lobbyists about complex utility rate legislation.
Dominion has “had a monopoly on knowledge, ” lamented Petersen, the country senator.
And unlike, say, the Chamber of Commerce, which goes toe to toe with labor unions in combats over the minimum wage, Dominion is “operating alone, ” Petersen said. “They have an legion of lobbyists. There’s no countervailing authority.”
Virginia, unlike many other states, also does not have a country office devoted exclusively to defending the rights of utility ratepayers, according to Howat. The attorney general has a consumer affairs department, but it does not compare to, say, Maryland’s Office of People’s Counsel, Howat said.
“If there is going to be ratepayer money that is going to guarantee anything, ” Howat argued, “some of that fund ought to go to fund a real public advocate.”
From a conservative standpoint, what bothers me here is the cronyism, one, and the further discrepancy from something approaching free-market pricing as we can achieve. Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia attorney general blockquote >
That changed ever so slightly this past election with the advent of Activate Virginia, an unlikely David to Dominion’s Goliath. Josh Stanfield, a 31 -year-old who returned in 2015 from a five-year teach stint in South Korea, made the group with virtually no money shortly after the end of the 2016 election. Stanfield had little formal political experience, but he was inspired to get involved by Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and his call to end the demoralizing affect of fund in politics. He operates Activate Virginia from his laptop — ricochetting from his mother’s home in southeast Virginia to political events in all the regions of the state — with the help of two volunteers.
But in Virginia’s November 2017 elections, different groups punched above its weight, fastening a pledge from 74 House nominees and two candidates for lieutenant governor to refuse gifts from Dominion and Appalachian. Stanfield is now executive director of the legislature’s People’s Caucus, which developed out of his group’s pledge.
“I can’t recall any candidates in the past having these conversations, ” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman( D ), a first-time legislator who took Activate Virginia’s pledge. “Activate Virginia did a good job of bringing it to the attention of people that this is what is happening in the Virginia Assembly.”
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello created the issue’s profile, stimulating Dominion and Appalachian’s influences a central part of his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Although Perriello did not formally agree to Activate Virginia’s pledge, he vowed at a February 2017 press conference not “to take one dime from Dominion.” Since the 2017 election, he has stimulated combating monopolies and their influence on the legislature a key focus of his new PAC, the New Virginia Way.
The success of Activate Virginia’s slate — and other nominees like Del. Chris Hurst( D ), who swore to take on Dominion and Appalachian without formally adopting Activate Virginia’s pledge — committed Petersen, Rasoul and others hope that the new legislature would curb at least some of Dominion’s power.
“I look forward to being able to work with Gov. Northam to repeal the rate-freeze bill as soon as possible, ” Rasoul told HuffPost in November.
But when the legislature reconvened in January, Dominion proved surprisingly resilient.
The state Senate’s Committee on Commerce and Labor killed Petersen’s “clean” repeal bill, which would’ve simply undone the rate-freeze legislation, in a 13-1 vote on Jan. 15. The one vote to save the bill came from Sen. Richard Stuart, a Republican.
The following day, in a 12-2 vote, the Committee on Privileges and Elections killed a second piece of legislation is adopted by Petersen that would have barred Virginia candidates from accepting gifts from state-regulated utility companies.
Rayhan Daudani, a spokesman for Dominion, claimed “it wouldve been” impractical to return to the pre-2 015 regulatory framework, which dates to 2007.
“We’re not in a 2007 world, ” he said. “You can imagine in 2007 nobody cares about carbon regulation to the degree they’re worried about it now, solar energy hadn’t genuinely proliferated to the degree — it just wasn’t cost-effective to the degree it is now.”
Petersen repudiated the relevant recommendations that subjecting Dominion’s rates to regulatory examine would limit its ability to invest appropriately in infrastructure. He noted that the previous regulatory framework permitted Dominion and other utilities to reinvest 30 percentage of over-earnings in infrastructure. The 2007 law, he said, was “already one of most generous statutes in the nation for a public monopoly.”
“As a reason to avoid rate evaluation, this is candidly grasping, ” he added.
Following the defeat in the government Senate of the clean repeal bills, a group of Dominion-friendly legislators introduced their versions of utility rate legislation in both enclosures of the legislature. Under the guise of reform, the two comrade bills actually scaled back the State Corporation Commission’s authority even further than it had been under the 2015 rate-freeze statute.
After some revises, the legislation specified that Dominion would induce the one-time rebate of $133 million to its ratepayers in 2018, and $67 million in 2019. Appalachian would have to give its ratepayers a cost reduction equal to $10 million.
But aside from those concessions, the regulations locks in so many regulatory carve-outs that many experts believe it is worse for customers than the 2015 rate-freeze law.
For one thing, the bill prolongs the utility rate review period to three years from the two-year interval in place before the 2015 statute. Since the SCC can only order a base rate reduction after two consecutive evaluations demonstrate the utility has been over-earning, the new law would lengthen the period of time before which a rate reduction would become a potential to six years.
Then, after six years old, even if the SCC found that the companies had been over-earning over two consecutive review periods, the legislation awards Dominion and Appalachian the opportunity to reinvest any over-earnings into renewable energy investment and grid modernization, in lieu of issuing mandatory refunds to their ratepayers.
That ain’t capitalism. That ain’t virtues. It’s the old-boy network. Scott Hempling, utilities regulation attorney blockquote >
The SCC, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, and the bill’s opponents in the legislature, say this provision is a license to “double dip, ” or charge ratepayers for infrastructure once through rate pays, and again through the recycling of over-earnings that should be refunded.
“Effectively, patrons will be paying twice for some of these investments, ” Sam Towell, deputy us attorney general for civil litigation, testified to both the Senate and House committees on commerce and labor.
For Scott Hempling, an attorney who specializes in utility regulation and who once worked for Virginia’s SCC, replacing potential refunds for ratepayers with renewable energy investments amounts to a smoke-and-mirrors public relations gimmick.
The clause enables Dominion to burnish its renewable energy credentials and effectively get a no-bid contract to construct new infrastructure courtesy of its ratepayers, according to Hempling.
Under different circumstances, Virginia might have an open bidding process in which contractors rival to modernize the grid and incorporate more renewable energy resources, he said. But if Dominion gets it style, it will have first crack at the infrastructure, with extravagance gains from its captive ratepayers, Hempling said.
He compared it to a occupation going to “the boss’ son, ” rather than to the most qualified person.
“That ain’t capitalism. That ain’t virtues. It’s the old-boy network, ” Hempling said.
What’s more, the legislation defines many of the same infrastructure investments that Dominion could stimulate with its over-earnings as being “in the public interest, ” and therefore automatically fast-tracked for SCC approval. In a letter addressed to lawmakers, the SCC projected that the provision undermines the body’s ability to assess projects’ cost-effectiveness, which could “potentially result in billions of dollars of extra cost that must be borne by customers in higher rates.”
“That’s a departure from the normal state of affairs where the regulator and stakeholders have an opportunity” to jointly weigh a variety of factors associated with capital investments, including usefulness and cost-efficiency and the burden on ratepayers, the NCLC’s John Howat said.
It’s an specially pressing concern regarding Dominion, which, unlike many utilities, is a vertically incorporated company that owns many of the power plant and gas wells that power the energy it sells to Virginia clients. Without a regulator’s oversight, Dominion has little real incentive to update the grid with an eye toward efficiency, since least efficient forms of energy delivery might actually pad its bottom line, Howat said.
“This appears to me to be self-dealing, ” he said.
Dominion’s influence over the drafting of the legislation was obvious. The draft copy of the bills, SB 966 in the Senate and HB 1558 in the House, included a note at the top: “Legislation not prepared by the DLS.” The sentence informs people that the Division of Legislative Services, the legislature’s in-house law-writing service, did not writer the bill.
Given the personnel and legal expertise needed to draft the nearly identical 21 -page bills, multiple sources with knowledge of the matter told HuffPost that it is almost impossible the latter are written by the staff of a lawmaker. They were instead likely was drawn up by Dominion’s staff, the sources posited.
Asked whether Dominion authored the legislation, Daudani wrote in an email: “Legislation is the consensus product of many writers. We worked with other stakeholders for several months to provide input on the bill which a bipartisan bloc of lawmakers introduced.”
What’s more, the lawmakers who co-sponsored the Dominion-backed bills are a who’s who of the utility giant’s darlings in the legislature. State Sens. Dick Saslaw( D) and Frank Wagner( R) and Del. Terry Kilgore( R) are some of the General Assembly’s biggest recipients of Dominion donations, receiving a combined sum of virtually $600,000 from the company in the past two decades.
Del. Lamont Bagby( D ), another co-sponsor of the legislation, is the director of operations at a charity that has received significant gifts from Dominion and its CEO, Thomas Farrell, for several years. Farrell contributed $100,000 to the Peter Paul Center, where Bagby operates, in 2016, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in January.
Bagby, who claims he did not know about its own contribution, told the Times-Dispatch, “I should have looked at that prior to signing on, but I think[ the bill] is the right thing for my constituents.”
Dominion’ On The Defensive’ ? strong>
Of the Virginia lawmakers with close ties to Dominion, Dick Saslaw, the Senate Democratic president, is perhaps the most outspoken about his faith in the company. From 1996 through 2017, he received $328,008 in campaign donations from Dominion, more than any other lawmaker.
Saslaw insists that Dominion’s largesse has never influenced how he votes. But in January, The Associated Press got its hands on an email exchange from several years ago in which a top Dominion executive complained to Saslaw when the state Democratic Party slammed a GOP lawmaker for excess friendliness to Dominion. The executive, Bob Blue, told Saslaw the company was “very disappointed, ” and reminded him of how “our company has supported Democrat over the years.”
Saslaw responded apologetically, expressing regret that he had not done his “homework” on “how generous Dominion has been to me.”
Saslaw has not built the same mistake again. He demonstrated a critical cheerleader for the Dominion-backed energy bill as it made its way through the Senate. In response to concerns that the bill let the company to “double dip, ” Saslaw insisted last week that lawmakers could place their trust in Dominion lobbyist Jack Rust, a former General Assembly colleague.
“If he tells you this thing cannot be double-counted, you can pretty much take that to the bank, ” Saslaw said.
Whether or not Saslaw’s peers find his argument compelling, he ultimately got his behavior. The government Senate went on to pass the bill on Friday in a 26 -1 3 poll, with seven Republican and six Democrats voting against it.
The Dominion-backed bill is due to come up for a vote on the House floor early this week, where it is widely expected to pass. Rasoul’s version of the clean rate-freeze repeal bill that Petersen introduced in the Senate died in subcommittee.
And last week, Gov. Ralph Northam( D ), funding recipients of direct and indirect Dominion largesse totaling more than $197,000 over the course of his job, signaled that the legislation would receive his signature , notwithstanding the objections of his attorney general. Northam maintains that Dominion has done enough to address the ”significant concerns ” he expressed about the legislation in January, and he does not believe the legislation will be translated into double-charging. In such statements is in favour of Dominion-backed bill, Northam quoth the utilities’ investment of $1.1 billion in energy efficiency programmes and low-income energy relief, and the bill’s educations to the SCC to fast-track the was approved by 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy projects.
“This compromise sets more fund in ratepayers’ pockets, ensures real oversight of utility rates, paves the way for significant upgrades to Virginia’s electrical grid, and mandates historic investing in energy efficiency and clean power, ” Northam said.
So when I caught up with Saslaw after the Senate adjourned on Friday, I expected to find him in high spirits. But his face reddened with anger as I asked about the legislation, beginning with a question about the us attorney general office’s concern that the bill would enable the utilities to double-charge ratepayers.
“There’s no double-charging. Zero. Zero, ” he proclaimed, strands of his white whisker ricochetting as he spoke. He elevated his voice: “Zero! Read the bill! ”
I had consulted legal expert who read the bill and read the SCC’s letter assessing the bill’s impact, I told him.
“Well, the donors got some experts, too, OK? ” he responded. “And they said there’s no double-charging. It appears to me there is a debate over who the experts are.”
Asked how he responded to criticism that the legislation would enable Dominion to get out of issuing refunds in years when it was over-earning, Saslaw sarcastically feigned outrage, claiming that past refunds never amounted to more than a few dollars a month.
“My God! We could have become the whole nation into Warren Buffett, ” he said, lowering his voice to a whispering with mock necessity. “Bill Gates, look out! ”
Let’s chalk up Saslaw’s testiness to the fact that advancing Dominion’s agenda in the legislature isn’t as easy as it used to be. Even Friday’s 26 -1 3 election been shown that lawmakers’ tolerance for Dominion’s influence is wearing thin. The legislation passed “easily, ” Saslaw said. But the 2015 rate-freeze bill, the last major utility rate bill that Dominion passed, was enacted by the significantly wider margin of 32-6.
And Saslaw has elicited public criticism for his coziness with Dominion, including from David Jonas, a former Perriello policy director, who tweeted, “We utterly cannot let this boy become Majority Leader in 2019. ” Jonas is rumored to be considering a primary running against Saslaw.
Some of the Dominion-backed bill’s advocates argue that the political backlash against Dominion had forced the company to build significant concessions, including the investment in weatherization of low-income homes.
“They were affected by public opinion pretty heavily. Of the 15 new Democrats elected to the House of Representative, they all sort of operate against Dominion, ” said country Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from southwest Virginia.
Edwards voted against the 2015 rate freeze statute and said he would have supported a clean repeal bill this time around. But given the political impossibility of clean repeal, the commitment to building low-income homes more fuel-efficient , among other things, was enough to earn Edwards’ vote for the Dominion-backed bill that passed Friday.
The weatherization of low-income homes “wouldn’t have happened without this bill. The utilities simply wouldn’t have done it, ” he said.
Other legislators were less thrilled with the lane the process had taken shape. Dawn Adams, a new delegate from Richmond who took Activate Virginia’s pledge, was one of the last lawmakers left in the legislature’s Pocahontas office building on Friday evening. She wanted to pore over the commotion of last-minute changes that had been stuffed in the bill ahead of the House vote next week. She was frustrated by how quickly the legislation was being rammed through the chamber.
“As a new legislator, the deck is stacked to not understand it well, ” she said. “I’ve had conversations with legislators who’ve been there for quite some time who are also struggling to understand it well.”
Adams “re just saying that” Activate Virginia’s Josh Stanfield is “helpful” in this regard. His existence, she said, ensures that “there is at least one advocate for the other side that I get information from.”
Stanfield positions Dominion’s eager push to enact the utility-rate bill as the last gasp of a monopoly that knows its days of impunity are numbered. Dominion is desperate to fight off new oversight precisely because it is felt that the political “allure” of securing refunds for utility ratepayers will eventually prove irresistible to country lawmakers, Stanfield ventured.
“How many times as a politician can you get a check to every single constituent? ” he said.
For Petersen, the fact that people like Adams are even carrying their concerns so vocally shows that Dominion is “on the defensive” — and that the policy debate is a step in the right direction.
Most importantly, the political monopsony long are received by Dominion is also under assault. Michael Bills, an aptly named Democratic megadonor from Charlottesville, announced Thursday that he would shelling out big money as a counterweight to Dominion’s influence. Bills, a wealthy investor who donated $566,000 to Northam’s campaign, has promised to contribute $5,000 to delegates and $20,000 to senators who pledge to reject fund or endowments from Dominion and to divest from the company. The contributions will be distributed by the Clean Virginia Project, a new branch of Tom Perriello’s New Virginia Way PAC.
And last week, Activate Virginia announced that a majority of Democrat operating for Virginia U.S. House seats had taken its pledge to refuse Dominion and Appalachian donations.
“Ten years ago, this issue wasn’t even talked about. It was like homosexuality 50 years ago, ” Petersen said. “People now are awake. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t threw it back.”