Fix the General Assembly, Then Tackle Energy Bill

It has been over a month since a coalition of unnatural allies announced a proposal to revise Virginia’s electricity regulation system – again – but the idea dropped from view fairly quickly. One of the main and most visible proponents, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, has now taken on a very different role in the Trump Administration. 

As I wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post (here), the ideas in the document itself need to remain on the shelf until the General Assembly and the rest of the Richmond establishment are less influenced by the various high-dollar players mixing profit and ideology in this effort. There also needs to be a more robust voice speaking only for consumers, a voice that actually gets heard.

Do what we’ve done before and we get what we’ve gotten before – a hit on consumers that enriches the moneyed interests. That happened in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2018.

My list of moneyed interests includes renewable energy manufacturers and developers and energy efficiency contractors. The people making natural gas turbines and wind turbines have the same basic motives, really, honorable as they are. I would love to better understand the economics of this “energy efficiency” business and may take the time to explore, but cash obviously flows.

Here is the document issued by the Virginia Energy Reform Coalition. It’s a political blueprint as much as an energy bill.

Dominion Energy Virginia was a regular topic of discussion in some but not many of the recent election primaries, but usually the issue boiled down to either taking or not taking campaign donations from regulated utilities. As long as the parties and caucuses do, individual candidates preening on that point are obnoxious hypocrites.

The problem is taking large amounts of money from any source, and that includes large amounts of “Anti-Dominion” funding from sources such as Clean Virginia or the major environmental sources (not so active so far as they were in 2017, not yet.)

But the even bigger problem is the refusal of so many in the legislature to listen to anybody but the lobbyists for the moneyed interests when the bills are in committee or on the floor. There have been a series of key turning points in recent years, but a huge one came when the House voted on retiring Delegate David Toscano’s floor amendment to take the double dip out of the 2018 Grid (a.k.a. Ratepayer Bill) Transformation Act.

The State Corporation Commission said it was a double dip, the Attorney General’s staff said it was a double dip, frankly every regulatory lawyer not on a utility payroll said it was a double dip, and yet Toscano’s amendment had to overcome 41 nays (here). Those were 41 people who believed the paid lobbyists were telling the truth, and the SCC and Attorney General and virtually everybody else was wrong. Or they blindly followed someone else who thought the SCC was wrong and Dominion more honest.

That’s when it was clear lobbying was a waste of time and client money, and it was time to go behind the General Assembly and straight to voters with information about these issues and the legislature’s failures.

Until a strong majority of the General Assembly is willing to listen to the SCC and others who really understand this complicated statute, until there is another independent voice for consumers (sorry, the Attorney General takes the money, too) that legislators will respect, then it would be hugely dangerous to reopen Title 56 for more surgery. First do no harm.

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7 responses to “Fix the General Assembly, Then Tackle Energy Bill

  1. A fine editorial, Steve.

    As you state: All new laws in Virginia need be put on hold until “the General Assembly and the rest of the Richmond establishment are less influenced by the various high-dollar players mixing profit and ideology in this effort. There also needs to be a more robust voice speaking only for consumers, a voice that actually gets heard.”

    This long festering problem needs to be fixed across the board, far beyond Dominion which, however big, is only one player in a massive game that has long corrupted the state’s system of governance, one that needs to be cleaned up and put firmly into Virginia’s past.

  2. I have to say there seemed little concern about the issue until the “greenies” got involved with big bucks so now it’s a problem.

    So few folks cared when it was Dominion alone and unfettered did their thing.

    And the sad truth is between corporate money to the elected in the GA – combined with slick PR – the masses don’t know squat or even if they
    do they consider Dominion to be a legitimate fixture of Va government!

    So now the greenies are playing that same game – and NOW it’s a “bad” thing!

    I alluded the other day that perhaps Arlington gets and deserves the government it wants… and I argue similarly for Virginia.

    What we have is a 20th century monopoly arrangement with utilities in a 21st century world and our rules allow them to fight to maintain it in any legal way they can to include money to elected.

    I actually think it’s a bigger/harder job to try to re-do all of our “money in politics” laws rather than focus on one of the most egregious players because that’s where the heat is that if put on elected – they will feel it whereas “reform” is more generic and nebulous to most voters.

    More than that – we need to “reform” the way we do Utility monopolies because Dominion has interpreted to apply to any area in the utility world where they would encounter advancing technology and competition.

    Dominion is the 600 lb gorilla who has a stranglehold on the GA and rather than elected posturing about accepting money – that alone will not work because of the way the GA processes legislation – initially in small committees and subcommittees. All these guys promising not to take money – most are not actually on these committees and/or the ones that are – the votes are not recorded.

    How do you change that?

  3. I read this piece and the one in the Post and agree the three suggestions make a lot of sense. The one problem is that unless the Dems take over the GA there is very little chance of any of this happening. Cuccinelli, who may be int he Trump administration, is a change agent but he’s a GOP outlander. Do you really see any daylight here?

  4. The biggest obstacle to “reforming” the stink of money in politics is the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, that retrograde document gives Americans inviolable rights to the freedom of speech and to petition the government. Any effort to curtail money in government will curtail freedom of speech and the right of petition. Moreover, such efforts won’t work anyway because money will always find a way to influence the electoral and regulatory processes. Restrictions will just drive the money underground.

    The alternative is twofold: (1) radical transparency and (2) the balancing of one set of interests by other interests.

  5. I used to think that but no longer agree, mainly because of my experience with the shipyard’s internal federal PAC. The federal rules on how the PAC gets its money and how the PAC disburses it are limiting, and most companies don’t want to risk the embarrassment of a successful complaint. Corporate funds are verboten. Individuals have to choose to give. Where you are right, Jim, is the work around created by all the soft-money loopholes, the superPACs etc. We could at least do a better job of imposing transparency on them in VA, as well. SCOTUS has not said no limits, no rule period.

  6. The Virginia Supreme Court decision holding that the SCC, while a constitutional agency, is subject to restrictions and process set out by the GA, is very damaging and should be overturned, either by legislation or by contitutional amendment. Another line of attack.

  7. yeah, I’m NOT buying the “free speech” thing at all.

    There ARE limits to “free speech”and there are also limits to “hidden” or “dark” money – and call THAT “free speech”.

    All this yammering about money in politics and then we say we can’t really do anything about it because “money is fungible”. That’s true but it DOES leave a trail – and competent prosecutors can follow that trail and make it “transparent” far more than so-called “required transparency” which is just as “fungible” as long as it is “legal”.

    This idea that money is fungible and you can’t “stop” free speech is grade A Horse Pucky… It’s a lame excuse from those who really don’t want it stopped IMHO.

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