Politicians Get the Gold Mine, the Middle Class Gets the Shaft

by James A. Bacon

Thousands have Virginians have fallen behind on their electric bill payments as they struggle through the COVID-19 epidemic. The General Assembly wants to help. So, in the budget compromise reached by the House of Delegates and the state Senate, Dominion Energy will be directed to forgive customers’ unpaid balances that were more than 30 days in arrears as of Dec. 31, 2020.

Who will pay for this? Not the Commonwealth of Virginia. The state may be awash in $2.4 billion in federal COVID relief funds plus $410 million in tax revenue over forecasts this year, but, no, legislators want to spend every dime.

And not Dominion Energy. The budget bill reaffirms the utility’s right to use the bill-forgiveness costs to offset earnings from 2017 to 2020 in the State Corporation Commission’s next review of its profits, reports The Virginia Mercury.

You, dear ratepayer, will pay the cost (unless you’re one of those who have fallen behind in your payments). With apologies to Jerry Reed, the politicians get the gold mine, and Virginia’s middle class gets the shaft.

In a world  ruled by a less rapacious political class, it would be understood that providing relief from economic hardship is a responsibility that should fall to the state, to be paid with tax dollars allocated by the General Assembly, not by electric ratepayers. You see, in the way things used to work, Dominion Energy revenues do not belong to the state. The General Assembly could not appropriate Dominion’s revenues for its own uses.

Dominion has an existing program, funded through voluntary donations, to help poor people pay their electric bills (which, as I recall, the General Assembly has supplemented with state funds in the past). That program no doubt has been overwhelmed by the epidemic, but it is an existing vehicle through which the General Assembly could easily channel public relief funds.

But lawmakers don’t want to appropriate state funds. They have an endless list of priorities in which the interests of taxpayers rank at the bottom, so they have chosen to shift the cost of funding the general welfare to Dominion ratepayers.

This is what happens when the legislature takes over over from the SCC the responsibility of overseeing Virginia’s electric utilities. For all practical purposes, utility budgets are seen as adjuncts to the state budget. Not only do lawmakers feel free to micro-manage how Dominion generates its electric power, they now have sanction to use the rate structure as a tool to redistribute income — first to help pay for the push to a 100% carbon-free grid, and now to help poor people through the epidemic.

Dominion has a fleet of lobbyists to look after its interests in the General Assembly. The power company will come out whole. The political class will get what it wants. Taxpayers and ratepayers get screwed once again. Unlike the Jerry Reed video above, there is nothing funny about this. Never in my 40+ years as a taxpaying adult in Virginia do I recall a legislature that has been so relentlessly hostile to the interests of the middle class. In the minds of an increasing number of elected officials, working- and middle-class Virginians are seen as bigots and troglodytes fit only for paying taxes.