Dominion Tool? The GA Is an Entire Toolbox

Retiring state Senator Frank Wagner gets appointed to some job by Governor Ralph Northam Friday and the headline on Blue Virginia labels him a “Dominion tool.” But has the other legislator being rewarded with a full-time job, Delegate Mathew James, cast any votes against the state’s favorite political whipping boy?

James being a Democrat, of course, nobody sought to look. The political assault on Dominion is carefully framed away from actual roll call votes, because the truth is plenty of members of both parties have loyally supported Dominion Energy Virginia with votes “on the board.”  James is among them.

Each voter must decide whether or not loyal support for Dominion’s efforts to enrich its stockholders at their expense matters.  It is up to each campaign against one of those incumbents to seek a way to make the voters care.  The data is out there but it is dry, complicated, dare one say boring.  Having spent a year digging into State Corporation Commission matters in depth, boring is a fair word usually. 

That’s probably why the shallow and banal approach pushed by Clean Virginia is getting more attention.  Now that its contribution list is growing, the partisan pattern is clear.   Wake me when they actually support a) a Democrat primary challenger to one of the incumbent “Dominion tools” in that party or b) one of the small group of Republicans who have routinely voted against Dominion and in favor of its ratepayers.  Until it gives money against Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw in his primary, don’t take Clean Virginia seriously.

All the stories about all the ways the General Assembly has tied the SCC’s hands to the detriment of consumers, and how much it costs them, mean nothing unless the voters get fired up and press their incumbents for answers.

I’m not going to do the research for the campaigns. But I have identified and linked below a small group of clear votes, situations where the legislators were hearing from vocal opponents warning that a bill was truly obnoxious. I included one key floor amendment vote, the only one with a partisan pattern.

Here is the honor roll of active legislators who voted right on them all. Don’t blink because it goes by fast. Delegates Alphonso Lopez (D), Sam Rasoul (D), Lee Ware (R) and Tony Wilt (R). Also, Senators Creigh Deeds and Chap Petersen, both Democrats. There are others more recently elected who have been steadfast for the consumers so far.

Sixteen of the 38 sitting senators running this fall cast three out of three votes for Dominion’s stockholders, five of them Democrats. Fourteen of the 91 delegates seeking election to House or Senate this fall cast four out of four for the stockholders, all Republicans in this case. But plenty of Democrats and Republicans had three out of four, many of the Democrats only voting on the right side on a single contested amendment. That’s the situation with James.

Following are the four House and three Senate roll calls in question. Each of these bills in my opinion fleeced Dominion’s customers, even after that successful floor amendment improved one of them a bit.

First up, Delegate David Toscano’s successful floor amendment to House Bill 1588, the Ratepayer Bill Transformation Act, eliminating the well-named “double dip” provision allowing Dominion to be paid twice. Everybody who wasn’t a shill for Dominion saw what this was, yet it was still a divided roll call, and one of the few with a strong partisan tilt. Most House Republicans voted wrong. It was the worst vote I’ve seen them take as a bloc in four decades.

A few moments later the same issue was voted on again, and the Republicans switched their votes, but too late. The first roll call is the only one that counted.

Toscano’s amendment  was only put to a vote in the House and here is the roll call. Only on this one is “yea” the pro-consumer vote. It was actually taken on the House version of the bill, but the Senate also saw the light and the double-dip disappeared from its version.

Second, examine the final votes on that bill (it was the Senate Bill 966 that passed in the end).  Here is the House final roll call and here is the Senate final roll call. It had strong bi-partisan support, clearly.

Third on the list is the famous and misnamed “Rate Freeze” bill of 2015, Senate Bill 1349, which effectively ended real regulation of the monopoly electricity utilities and replaced it with legislative control. It locked in as yet uncounted excess profits for the utility using the bogus threat of pending federal CO2 regulations, which posed little real threat to ratepayers. You can find the House vote here and the Senate vote here.

Finally, we turn to a lesser-known 2014 issue, this bill allowing Dominion to collect hundreds of millions of dollars for its spending on the still-up-in-the air North Anna 3 nuclear plant. Under traditional regulation the utility would carry the costs until a proposed project is built and operating, but this bill charged ratepayers in advance for a ghost plant which may never appear. The real purpose of the bill was to tilt the accounting on the pending 2015 rate case.  The House vote on Senate Bill 459 is here and the Senate vote here.

There was a problematic bill in 2013, as well, changing accounting rules on rate cases in favor of the utility and against the ratepayer. But because it was negotiated in secret, blessed by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and introduced late, it drew little opposition. It was the “wake-up” call about Dominion’s intentions and tactics and the real struggle started in 2014.

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16 responses to “Dominion Tool? The GA Is an Entire Toolbox

  1. Just remember – Money in politics is “free speech”… Heard that idea repeated many times here in BR – so we’ve got all the free speech one could ever want out the wazoo!!!

    This whole thing is a charade where many politicians behave like puppets – when out in front of voters they are “good” puppets with halos then when they are less visible – they do the votes that maintain the corrupt system we do have and most voters are blissfully ignorant of it.

    Frankly, I’m surprised that we don’t have a RAC for “necessary” lobbying expenses! Don’t laugh – I bet it’s a line item “expense” somewhere!

    We have the ultimate in “machine” politics – all the while our vigilant “watchdogs” whine about how those “environmentalists” unduly “influence” our esteemed reps in the GA.

    Gawd Forbid that they be as effective in THEIR lobbying!

    I’m NOT a Dominion “hater”. I want to see them be successful and continue to be the competent grid operator they always have been – but at some point – the stench of the current process is just overwhelming.

    • Larry, there is a big difference in the law between campaign contributions, lobbying and the ability of a person or corporation spending money to advocate and influence public policy. Campaign contributions are and have been regulated by both federal and state governments for years. Whether the regulations are the best is debatable.

      Lobbying and lobbying expense disclosure is also regulated. Again people disagree about the nature and extent of regulation in this area.

      The area that is not generally regulated is: spending money to advocate one’s views on a candidate or issue. Do I have the right to spend my own money to design, print and distribute bumper stickers that read: “Northam is a Racist and Should Resign”? Remember that the government tried to stop people from funding an anti-Hillary Clinton movie in the Citizens United case. Do we think the Trump administration should come out with a rule that says it is illegal to spend money to fund an anti-Trump video?

      Again, I don’t have trouble regulating around the edges. I don’t think these costs should be tax deductible or that non-profits should retain their tax-exempt status if they spend money to influence public policy. But if Dominion wants to spend shareholder money to advocate its views, so be it. No government entity should control speech.

      • re: ” Do I have the right to spend my own money to design, print and distribute bumper stickers that read: “Northam is a Racist and Should Resign”? Remember that the government tried to stop people from funding an anti-Hillary Clinton movie in the Citizens United case. Do we think the Trump administration should come out with a rule that says it is illegal to spend money to fund an anti-Trump video?”

        where did you get this from TMT? This is simply false guy. What in the world are you reading? give me your links.

  2. Ignore the money. Look at the votes. That’s my point.

  3. Thanks for the background research, Steve. You have done, and continue to do, yeoman’s work that no other reporter is doing. Down-in-the-weeds investigative reporting is old fashioned and almost unheard of now.

    I was surprised and a little puzzled by Frank Wagner’s decision to retire, although I realized that he had a marginal district. Now, the picture becomes clearer. It is a tried-and-true tactic, practiced in the past by both sides: Take a district that is trending away from the incumbent’s party and toward the administration’s party, make that incumbent an offer of a juicy, top-level state job that will provide him with a nice pension after three years, and, voila, you have a vacant legislative seat for the taking.

    The situation with Matthew James is a little different, since he is the same party as the Governor. DGS already has a very capable deputy director. It sounds like James is getting a new, made-up position–“working on business expansion and procurement projects for small women- and minority-owned businesses and helping Virginia becom[e] the No. 1 state for business development.” Never mind that “business development” is not really what DGS is all about. Since James was quoted by the Virginian Pilot that he was coming out of semi-retirement, his district has picked up more Republican voters, and he now has a DUI conviction, a cynic may see this appointment as a bail-out for a Black Caucus member who was in trouble.

  4. Ugh. Well I feel like the Dems want to increase taxes, which includes using higher Electric Bills as a sneaky way to accomplish that. So the Dems want to do things like excavate coal ash which creates jobs, and possibly improve the grid to allow more solar etc. So to some extent Dems want to use electric bills to acocmplish some of their progressive objectives.
    At one time, New Jersey was a little more open, writing journal articles about how smart the elected officials were using the (defacto state run) utililites to stimulate the economy, etc. But basically hot dogging.
    I’d say keep NA3 on the work list since there could not be possibly be a more toxic poison to mankind than natural gas. We’re just going to have to pay the price (and campaign donations to Dominion etc).

  5. Excellent work on this Steve. Unfortunately, you are right. Despite the steady drain on their pocketbooks, most Virginia citizens have little interest in the “boring” items that are adding to the energy costs of families and businesses throughout the state.

    It is much easier to read a rehash of Dominion’s PR machine that says all of these projects “will save us money and create jobs.”

    Somehow we must find a way to return to the original “utility compact” that provided a fair return in exchange for fair rates determined by an objective regulator (not a legislature).

    Now that shareholders no longer own the regulated utilities in Virginia but their unregulated parent companies, the executives of those companies are compensated solely for increasing shareholder value. They use every means necessary to extract more profits, at the expense of ratepayers. The regulator has been progressively stripped of its oversight duties as a result of paid-for votes in the legislature.

    This unbalanced scheme primarily favors the energy companies now, but harms customers immediately, and our state economy. I believe that the increased energy costs that result from this shortsighted policy will eventually come back to harm the energy companies too. Or if future efforts continue to protect the utilities from market forces, our economic vitality will further degrade in Virginia.

    I am amazed at how many of our policymakers are persuaded by the PR about lowering energy costs and creating jobs. As a result they continue to create energy policies that will have the opposite result.

    We can have financially healthy energy companies and lower costs, but not on the path we are on.

    • Tom, I like your focus on long-term. Virginia’s competitive advantages are its location near Washington, D.C. and federal money and the big military presence in SE VA. Every candidate and elected official argues for the need to diversify the economy. High energy prices will harm that effort. Not allowing economic forces to cause utilities to change their business model will hurt as well.

  6. I don’t think Dominion should be involved in ANY of this to be honest – if the terms of it are that they will earn revenues from it and whatever “savings” occur to not accrue to the ratepayers but instead to the investors.

    Dominion has not only been able to neuter would-be competitors but on top of that – been able to “charge” people for less electricity use. It’s downright bizarre.

    What they are saying, in effect, is – that it don’t matter whether you conserve or use less electricity – you still are going to have to pay what you would have for electricity – anyhow – and the folks in the GA are apparently on board with that idea!

    re: ” The regulator has been progressively stripped of its oversight duties as a result of paid-for votes in the legislature.”

    I used to think that but now I’ve become convinced that the SCC is also on board with the ” you must pay for your share of the value of the monopoly – if we (Dominion/APCO) are in charge of the “conservation” technology. What cynic in the GA or the SCC would agree to this ? support it in law and regulation?

    I’d sure like to see a few more guest posts by Dominion folks explaining the logic .. in a straight-forward way – no PR foolishness.

  7. Larry,

    The logic is straightforward. The only way for the utility to increase its earnings is to build new projects that can be put in the rate base, usually using a RAC, that will provide a new stream of profits for the utility for decades. This is the only formula available for the utilities until we create a better one, as numerous other states are doing.

    We should provide a way for the energy companies to prosper by doing things that are good for their customers, just like any other business.

    The holding company executives see it as their job to increase those profits in whatever way possible. Unfortunately, that means building projects that provide little, if any, benefit to customers and increase their costs.

    Much of the decision-making has been removed from the SCC when the GA legislates that a certain project is “in the public interest.”

    Granted, the SCC has pushed back very little against the GA co-opting portions of their historical role. But this should be no great surprise since the GA appoints the SCC Commissioners. The most recent appointee was selected in a closed-door session, seemingly accomplished in only a few hours.

    At other times, SCC Commissioners were summoned to the GA for a lecture on how things were going to work and what their role would be.

    Virginia’s scheme bears little resemblance to the actions taken by the legislative branch in dealing the the state utility regulators in the other states where I have worked with utilities.

  8. Dominion’s pouring money into the coffers and pockets of Virginia politicians is surely a bipartisan game. Here are the four all time biggest individual recipients of Dominion money (in order) …

    Saslaw for Senate – Richard (D)
    Kilgore for Delegate – Terry (R)
    Warner for Governor – Mark (D)
    Norment for Senate – Thomas (R)

    Interestingly, with the exception of Warner, these are the three most nominated politicians for the annual Clownie awards given to the worst politician in the General Assembly each year.

  9. To be fair – a lot of companies do sell a lot of products for great profit that have little real benefit to those willing to buy them but in this case – it boils down to the govt FORCING people to pay for stuff that does not really benefit them and that’s egregious.

    I’m not sure HOW we change things so that Dominion CAN prosper if the trend line is inevitably towards more efficiency and less electricity use. What other “products” would they be able to sell as a monopoly that they would not be competing against private sector providers?

    In terms of money in elections – that “free speech” folks keep defending… the results of which are clear and present in our electric utility laws and regulation. We essentially are saying that it’s “free speech” for a Company to give money to a legislator who is getting ready to vote on legislation that affects the interests of the company who is giving them money.

    We can go on calling this “free speech” but in most other countries it’s called illegal and corrupt and people go to jail over it.

  10. Many states have embarked on regulatory redesign to match the changes in our energy system.

    The trend towards more efficient use of energy and stable load growth is certainly a big part of the equation. It makes no sense to continue to incentivize building more, when using more electricity is no longer a good thing, designating progress and lowering costs.

    The wires were always the original monopoly. It took some time before utilities realized that it was better for them to gain a guaranteed profit to build power plants rather than purchasing energy from others.

    Almost 40% of the states have realized that a vertical monopoly fails to serve the customers’ interest, because it results in higher rates than what otherwise might exist. Many states have decoupled generation from the rate base.

    There are many variations of new regulatory schemes. New York’s is probably the most refined, but still a work in progress. They recognize the sanctity of the wires monopoly and have provided numerous ways for the utilities to monetize it beyond just the rate of return on the rate base.

    Utilities earn money by charging for access to the wires and providing transactional services connecting buyers with the providers of various energy services. Some of these services can be reimbursed with performance-based rates that allow the utility to make more profit when they provide more value, just as unregulated businesses can.

    Utilities can still build new generation, but it must pay its own way in the wholesale energy market. The utilities can also build renewables, but on an equal footing with other developers, without the guaranteed profit of putting it in the rate base. Any provider is granted equal access to the wires, if they pay the appropriate charges. Utilities cannot obstruct the opportunities of other energy service providers. This increases customer choices and lowers costs, while keeping utilities financially healthy while increasing profit opportunities and job creation by other businesses.

    Our energy companies can prosper in ways that are good for Virginia. The only thing that keeps us from that is lack of vision and political will. In most states, the over-arching policy is developed by the Governor and the legislature, with the details developed by the regulator. This complex process is difficult to see through to the end by a one-term governor and a legislature beholden to the energy companies.

    Our investor-owned utilities have found it more profitable to extend the outdated system through millions invested in the political process and PR, in order to gain billions in profit. From their point of view the system works fine, so why fix it?

    Most families and businesses, Chambers of Commerce, and labor organizations are so dazzled by the alternative facts spewed out by the PR machines that they think this is a good deal for them and continue to support the status quo.

    The politicians are much better off with a steady stream of corporate and PAC contributions rather than spending political capital supporting a one-term governor’s proposals. Unfortunately, no one is representing the interests of their constituents.

    It is very difficult to present better ways of doing things for everyone when no one is willing to listen.

  11. re: ” Utilities earn money by charging for access to the wires and providing transactional services connecting buyers with the providers of various energy services. Some of these services can be reimbursed with performance-based rates that allow the utility to make more profit when they provide more value, just as unregulated businesses can.”

    The thing that has always puzzled me is that most of Virginia – including much of RoVa is “wired” for electricity – and even phone – but not internet.

    Every house that has electricity – ought to already have the poles and related infrastructure to provide them with internet.

    Headline: ” State Laws Slow Down High-Speed Internet for Rural America”

    Electric cooperatives want to help bridge the digital divide between rural and urban America as more federal funding becomes available for rural broadband.

    But a 77-year-old law may prevent one of the nation’s poorest states from fully tapping into millions of new federal dollars to expand high-speed internet service to needy rural communities.

    Mississippi is among the states that rely most heavily on rural electric cooperatives, nonprofits that deliver power to their members in rural areas. Mississippi’s electric cooperatives’ service area covers 85 percent of the state’s land mass.

    Yet since 1942, Mississippi state law has restricted its cooperatives to working in electric services.”

    https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2019/01/11/state-laws-slow-down-high-speed-internet-for-rural-america

    do we have a “silo” problem with monopolies where one does not want to provide a service and a would-be competitor is prevented from competing?

    Of all the CRAP that Dominion is proposing – rural internet would have “legs” in my view but it’s just not on the table.

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