A View from the Trenches: Ending the Freeze

by Chris Saxman

Statesmen should remember that they have been elected to persuade and to lead, and not just to accept as fixed the momentary moods and pernicious prejudices of the public.
     — Stanley Hoffman

Professor Hoffman might have been quite pleased watching yesterday’s Senate Commerce and Labor Committee as the compromise legislation on electric utility regulation, grid modernization, and energy efficiency was debated and sent to the Senate floor.

Here is Governor Ralph Northam’s press release on the legislation.

The bill – SB 966 – is being carried by Commerce and Labor Chairman Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, along with Senator Dick Saslaw, R-Fairfax), who was carrying a similar bill, SB967. Saslaw’s bill was incorporated or “rolled” into SB966 at the start of the debate.

After that motion came internal committee debate and questioning of Wagner and Saslaw which helped explain the compromise bill brokered by Governor Ralph Northam and House Speaker Kirk Cox. Just hours before the committee meeting, the Governor announced that a deal, in fact, been struck.

Almost all of the committee members spoke at one point and in doing so exposed the extraordinary changes occurring in the political landscape – both in Virginia and in the U.S. Remember, that Virginia is a battleground, bellwether coming off a dramatic statewide election just three months ago. More on that later….

During the 2017 election, the issues being debated yesterday played a prominent but not decisive role.

Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, opened the dialogue as he expressed concerns about the economic value of the significant solar investment required in the bill. The 5,000 megawatts of solar power to be added in Virginia by 2028, he thought, would be too heavy a cost to be paid by ratepayers, suggesting that this was more “social judgement’ than economic good. Obenshain expressed that perhaps the State Corporation Commission is in better position to make such decisions rather than having the General Assembly do it “on the fly.”

Saslaw explained that 5,000 megawatts equated to 1.25 million homes that would be powered by solar generation and that “nothing is free.” Saslaw said that “both” economic and social judgments were being addressed in SB966.

Senator Steve Newman, R-Campbell County, acknowledged his gratitude that the bill was “much improved in just a week” but that he, too, had economic concerns for ratepayers about the solar portions of the bill as a “giveaway too high and too great” for his support.

Senator Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, questioned if the real winners of the compromise were the stockholders of Dominion or Appalachian Power while Senator Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg asked, “Who spoke for the consumers?”

Dana Wiggins of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which had been very vocal publicly in decrying the current law written in 2015 in response to the Clean Power Plan, stated that while her organization had been part of the working group, it “still had concerns about double charging.” Later Wiggins would testify that the VPLC was neither for nor against the bill, which shocked many observers because the Center’s pre-session commentary had been so negative. Now it was neutral.

Southside Senator Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, did explore, along with Northern Neck Senator Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland,concerns about “double charging” and “giving people their money back” as they questioned Dominion lobbyists Jack Rust and Bill Murray.

Saslaw, a Democrat, interjected about Rust’s integrity based on his many years of working with Rust, a former Republican delegate from Fairfax. When he gave you an answer, “You can take it to the bank.”

In the end, four Senators, all Republican, would vote against the bill — Newman, Stanley, Stuart, and Dick Black of Loudoun — but the real drama occurred following the internal, yet public, committee deliberations.

Chairman Wagner asked for those who were supporting and then those opposing the bill to come forward with their intentions.

First up was the Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler stating the support of the Governor. That Natural Resources was the Governor’s representative and not Commerce and Trade or Legislative Counsel was quite telling. Strickler was followed by the League of Conservation Voters’ Mike Town who expressed the support of LCV, a major Northam supporter in the 2017 campaign. Next came, Natural Resources Defense Council, Apex Clean Energy and the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, followed by Orsted, a Danish offshore wind company which also supported the bill.

Then the business community followed with the Virginia Manufacturers, Washington Gas, Northern Virginia Tech Council, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Conservatives for Clean Energy, Virginia Offshore Wind, Appalachian Power and Dominion also voiced their public support for the bill.

Seems like a broad based compromise at this point since the Governor, major environmental groups, and many business organizations were supporting the bill, right? Right.

And then.

And then Attorney General Mark Herring, through his consumer protection division stated its opposition to the bill along with the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and representatives of large industrial users.

This was followed by the stunning “neutral” position of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.

On one side, the Governor, the Speaker, Senators Saslaw and Wagner, many leading business groups and key environmental groups. On the other side, the Attorney General, from the same party as the Governor and who is thought to be eyeing a run for governor in 2021, further-to-the-left environmental groups, large industrials, and four Republican state senators.

Extraordinary divisions are being exposed while new possible alliances are becoming possible.

Recalling last week’s email quote from Napoleon: “There is no destiny, only politics.”

So far, it looks like the new leaders in Virginia – Governor Ralph Northam and House Speaker Kirk Cox are proving quite capable in navigating politics.

So far.

2018 could be the year of the conscious return to The Virginia Way of governing.

The House Committee on Commerce and Labor will take up its version of the bill on Thursday afternoon.

Chris Saxman is executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education. This commentary was originally published as an email missive.

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10 responses to “A View from the Trenches: Ending the Freeze”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s hard to tell what Virginia Free is really about.. if you go to their website to find out…. they have, for instance, “rankings” of the GA .. but could not find their criteria for scoring..

    and on this issue.. what is Virginia Free’s position?

  2. djrippert Avatar

    “2018 could be the year of the conscious return to The Virginia Way of governing.”

    Dear God let’s hope not. I was living in Virginia when Mr Saxman was born (in Pittsburgh, PA). I’ve been listening to Virginia politicians and former politicians spew the rhetorical equivalent of projectile vomit about “The Virginia Way” for well over 50 years. It is a mindless phrase devoid of meaning. However, when it is proffered as a positive for Virginia it is done so in direct contradiction to this state’s horrific and appalling legacy of grossly incompetent and culpably negligent governance.

    While the original Colonial politicians from Virginia were groundbreaking heroes the true legacy of The Virginia Way dates from about 1820.

    Let’s sample some of the great successes of the Virginia Way:

    1. 1820s – stifling democracy by being one of only two states that limit voting to landowners
    2. 1830s – continued disenfranchisement of western Virginia citizens by apportionment by county allowing the eastern Virginia elites to control the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (aka The General Assembly)
    3. 1861 – Voting for succession to join an immoral war which could not be won and, in the process, losing the western third of the state and ensuring human and economic devastation of the state
    4. 1861 – Becoming the capital of the Confederacy ensuring the complete and absolute devastation of Virginia’s largest city. Just before the US Civil War Richmond was the 25th most populous city in America. Today it is #98.
    5. 1870 – adopting a new state constitution that stifled democracy by letting the General Assembly elect judges rather than by popular vote. Today, Virginia remains one of only two states where the judiciary is elected by the legislature without so much as a merit commission
    6. 1901 – adopting a new constitution that disenfranchised black and illiterate white Virginians by adopting poll taxes and literacy tests in order to vote. Before this constitution was adopted the electorate in Virginia was twice the size it was after the constitution was adopted. After adjusting for women voters, the electorate in Virginia would only equal the size of the electorate from 1900 in 1952 despite the fact that the state had twice as many people.
    7. 1902 – adopting Virginia’s longest running constitution without popular vote. The legislature voted in order to bypass the opposition of black voters who were still allowed to vote under the old constitution.
    8. 1956 – massive Resistance, the General Assembly passes the Stanley Plan denying state funds to any integrated school and giving the governor the authority to shut down any such school
    9. 1959 – Mildred and Richard Loving plead guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth” because one was black and the other white
    10. 1970 – women allowed to enroll in the University of Virginia (beyond the nursing and teaching schools)
    11. 1972 – last state ordered sterilization under Virginia’s Eugenics program
    12. Today – one of only four states that have no restrictions on donations to state political campaigns
    13. Today – only state where the regulatory commission (SCC) is elected by the legislature
    14. Today – one of only two states where the judiciary is elected by the legislature (including active lawyers who will try cases in front of the judges they elect) without so much as a merit commission.
    15. Today – 5th most gerrymandered state regardless of state constitution requirement that political districts be “compact and contiguous”

    Trust me – those 15 examples only scratch the surface of the oppressive political misbehavior hat has held back Virginia for more than a century under the guise of “The Virginia Way”

    Mr Saxman – The next time you get the sudden urge to ignore history and wax poetically about the long running virtues of governing in “The Virginia Way” I’d urge you to follow this procedure … reach between your legs, grasp your neck, yank hard and try to pull your head out of your ass.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    A week ago, give or take (time starts to fade into a blur) I sent my dear friend Jim my own report from the front, as I promised my loyal friends on this blog I would do. He balked. Get your own blog, he kinda said. Well, Chris Saxman can get his own bleeping blog. Just like the VA Chamber and the VA Manufacturing Association, he is a shill, a paid Dominion spokesman. even more dependent on their largess than a politico. And he takes a bit of a shot at my current client, the VA Poverty Law Center, for its tactical decisions.

    You can bet that like the Chamber he will “score” a vote for Virginia consumers as “anti-business”, even though plenty of businesses are also owed major, major refunds for over charges they will NOT get from this bill.

    Virginia FREE and the other organizations are deeply committed to damaging the entire business climate of Virginia by enriching one monopoly and by destroying the authority and credibility of the State Corporation Commission. This post from Chris is a repeat of Jim’s (better) account of the meeting but notice that both — both — focused on my client and questioned our tactics/motives. Because we are kicking their patron’s pattootie. Could they be taking cues from somebody else? If Jim and Chris were in the room, acting as reporters, why not seek me out in the same room? Gee Steve, why is VPLC taking a neutral position?

    People, nobody needs to run 1000 ratings points of television advertising per week to promote a bill that is good for VA.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” If Jim and Chris were in the room, acting as reporters, why not seek me out in the same room? Gee Steve, why is VPLC taking a neutral position?”

    sounds like there is something more worth reporting… and I hope it occurs.

  5. Just got back from Richmond and hours of Commerce and Labor Subcommittee meetings on energy bills. I can give you this report and observation, nothing has changed. Yes there is movement at the margins but at the end of the day Dominion still holds the cards necessary to ensure that their agenda is enacted.

    That being said, although Sen. Wagner can be brusque and Sen. Saslaw quick tempered, their behavior is downright genteel in comparison to some of their more thin-skinned Brethren in the House. I witnessed several instances of deplorable behavior by committee members.

    Not suprisingly Dominion’s principal water carrier from Gate City would have one believe that if there is anything of value in the Grid Transformation Bill one should suck it up, swallow the bitter pill forced upon ratepayers state-wide, prostate oneself before the committee and plant a big wet kiss to Chairman’s munificent ass while singing “You Are My Hero”. Again nothing different from years past or terribly unexpected.

    The truly deplorable behavior was that exhibited by the more junior members of the subcommittee, Del. Ransone comes immediately to mind. Her commentary and actions verged on vile. Note to the Delegate from Kinsdale, after six years in the GA you should probably know how to make a motion in Committee by now and certainly not require assistance to carry an item over. Further, decorum suggests you should be able to make a motion directed at the bill and its patron without engaging in a vile personal attack on a patron’s constituents.

    Karma is a bitch honey and I suspect some real karma is headed your way.

  6. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner


    I assume you are talking about this one, Rasoul’s bill. I couldn’t stick around last night. Here is another roll call that IMHO will come back to haunt people. That bill “ended the freeze” and the utility-sponsored version makes it all but permanent.

    1. If you are referring to me, no it was not that bill but close.

  7. Ugh…Dominion-flavor solar is better than NA3 project I suppose.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s what I’d like to see – legislation introduced that forbids any regulated monopoly from donating money to any elected official.

    and failing that – that any legislator that received money from Dominion – disclose that money before each vote.

    Virginia is for Rubes.. not Lovers…

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      From a First Amendment perspective, I am troubled by a ban on campaign contributions from an employee of a public utility.

      I have mixed feelings about banning contributions from the utility itself, given that Virginia allows contributions from corporations, etc. Like the federal ban on contributions from federal contractors, an argument can be made that a regulated monopoly should not be permitted to make campaign contributions. But, on the other hand, such a law would be effectively making limitations on speech based on content, since there does not seem to a proposal to ban contributions from other persons or entities involved in energy matters, such as the Sierra Club and folks like Tom Steyer.

      Pass a constitutional amendment that limits lawful campaign contributions to natural persons, living in the state where the election is being held and barring PACs or any other form of bundling.

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