Steve Nash, author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” is on a crusade against Dominion Energy, electric utilities, the coal industry and other corporate special interests that donate vast sums of money to Virginia politicians. He has been submitting op-eds to newspapers around the state taking Dominion and Appalachian Power to task for their outsized campaign contributions.
Writing most recently in the (Lynchburg) News & Advance, Steve asks:
So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: Can your legislator explain why it’s OK to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not pre-empt the public interest?
Now, Steve is a very close friend of mine, and we debate issues like this with regularity. One of the things that I love about Steve is that, although he is tenacious in his beliefs, he does make an effort to understand the other side of the argument. He engages in reasoned, gentlemanly discussion rather than resorting to change-the-subject evasions and ad hominem attacks. I will endeavor to engage Steve’s arguments in the same generous spirit.
It is an article of faith on the left that the coal and electric-power industries, and Dominion most of all, are fending off worthy environmentalist legislation by buying legislators’ loyalties. Dominion, as Steve points out, has given more than $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2016 — $826,000 in 2016-17 alone. The company is Virginia’s top donor. And it doesn’t hand out the money in a spirit of charity and good will. Like everyone else, Dominion gives money because it hopes to get something in return — access, if not legislators’ votes.
As Steve writes:
Public servants who take Dominion’s and Appalachian’s money have voted on countless power-utility-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of power company lobbyists, and then handed those companies a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.
Please note that Steve seems to have no problem with environmental interests donating large sums of money. As the Staunton News Leader observed recently, the top three environmental campaign donors, the League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have shelled out $5.0 million to individual statewide candidates over the past decade, compared to Dominion’s $3.3 million. (The comparison is not entirely fair because it doesn’t include other utility and fossil fuel interests. But the article makes the point that environmentalists aren’t slouches when it comes to throwing around big money.)
Steve and other environmentalists frequently note that Dominion donated $75,000 to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, not including thousands more from individual Dominion executives. Although I don’t recall Steve making the connection, others have suggested that such campaign booty explains the governor’s support for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion is the managing partner.
But the critics of utility donations never acknowledge that NextGen Climate Action, founded by California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, donated more than $1.6 million to McAuliffe! Another $1.7 million came from the League of Conservation Voters, and nearly $470,000 from the Sierra Club. Nor do the critics ever observe that, as a reward to his environmental supporters, McAuliffe appointed Angela Navarro, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, as deputy secretary of Natural Resources.
When was the last time a Dominion Energy executive was appointed to a senior administrative post?
Steve holds up as exemplars more than five dozen House of Delegates candidates who have signed a pledge to refuse to accept campaign cash from either Dominion or Apco. These are mostly Democrats, but Steve argues that conservatives should join the movement, too. After all, big money in politics encourages big government.
As a libertarian, I agree that big money and big government are intertwined. And as a libertarian, I have no problem with candidates voluntarily turning down corporate money — as opposed to restricting the right of corporations to offer the money. But as best I can tell, Tom Steyer, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club are not calling for less government. They just want to utilize the power of state government to different ends.
The difference between the electric utilities and the environmentalists, Steve implies in the quote above, is that the utilities are lobbying for their own private interests while environmentalists are pushing for the “public interest.”
It’s fair to say that environmentalists believe they are working for the public interest. But they’re working for their definition of the public interest. Their’s is not necessarily the same definition that, say, coal miners in Southwest Virginia would adopt. Or that economic developers in natural gas-constrained Hampton Roads would use. Or that electric rate payers would use. Or that businesses and homeowners counting on the reliability of the electric grid would use.
Environmentalists are a special interest lobby just like Dominion, Apco and the coal companies. That doesn’t make them evil; it doesn’t even make them wrong. Indeed, I’m happy to entertain the idea that in many instances, they are right. But it is romantic nonsense to insist that environmentalists dwell in some higher ethical plane and that their goals are any more pure than anyone else’s.
Bacon’s bottom line: If Dominion, Apco, the coal industry, Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club, and every other corporate or special interest group under the sun didn’t believe that money didn’t buy them access, they wouldn’t give the money. Clearly, money does influence the public policy process. But so does the media. So do grass roots organizing efforts. So do lawsuits. And, believe it or not, so do the actual merits of the case.
Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to follow campaign money. However, a large fraction of the cash dedicated to influencing public policy is invisible. We can’t track how much different groups are spending on public relations and influencing the press. We can’t track how much money is spent on research, organizing demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and other grass-roots activities. We can’t track how much money is spent on filing lawsuits and pressuring regulators.
Wouldn’t it be great if the electric utilities and environmental groups alike revealed how much they spent on such efforts? I’m not holding my breath. Most groups hew to the ethic of “Transparency for thee, but not for me.” Until such time as we know the bigger picture, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about disparities in one channel — campaign contributions — for influencing the political process.
Update: I just came across a 2014 Mother Jones article that said Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action spent $8 million “to keep Republican Ken Cuccinelli out of the state’s top office.” So, Steyer spent more money in one year than Dominion donated in ten.