A few days into Virginia’s 2018 legislative session, a Democratic delegate named Sam Rasoul stood on the floor of the state House and gave a speech straight from the angry populist heart of his party’s new national platform. It wasn’t just a criticism of corporate monopoly, though it certainly was that. It was a jeremiad against the politics of monopoly, wherein politicians at all levels truckle to the very entities they have both the power and the popular support to regulate.
The subject at hand was a reform effort directed at Dominion Energy Virginia, a longtime foe of state consumer advocates, anti-corruption activists and environmentalists. Dominion had already used its considerable influence to kill off two bills in the state Senate that were designed to bring the state monopoly to heel. But there was a larger dynamic at work: Since the election of Donald Trump, Democrats have begun to fashion themselves into the anti-monopoly party. This has made for welcome rhetorical flourishes about the evils of corporate concentration, but the question of how the party would respond legislatively to these new priorities has in large part gone unanswered.
In Virginia, the Nov. 7 election swept into office a band of antitrust crusaders the likes of which the state had not seen in decades. Rasoul was the only incumbent in a group of 13 victorious House Democrats who had pledged not to accept campaign donations from Dominion and Appalachian Power, the other state-regulated electric utility.
The success of these candidates gave Rasoul and others hope that 2018 would be the year that lawmakers finally stood up to monopolies in general, and Dominion in particular. Rasoul and three other lawmakers who took the pledge went on to form the People’s Caucus, a nonpartisan consumer protection and campaign finance reform bloc whose members pledge to refuse contributions from state-regulated utility companies.
Here in Richmond, then, was an early test of the sturdiness of the new anti-monopoly plank in the Democrats’ platform.
I’d be willing to guess that nobody on the House floor has ever called a bill related to Dominion corrupt. Quentin Kidd, Christopher Newport University
As the session got underway, Rasoul, a smiley maverick from Roanoke, sensed that Dominion’s lobbying and charm offensive had some of the freshman lawmakers’ heads spinning. He tried to regain the momentum by expanding the bounds of the debate. “I made the calculated decision that we have to kick this wound wide open and make clear that this is not going to be business as usual,” he recalled.
And so Rasoul did something out of the ordinary: He criticized his colleagues. “When we allow for these monopolies... but we give the constitutional authority to the [regulatory agency] to protect the ratepayers, and then turn right around and pass a bill to peel back that very protection, it’s no wonder why people are frustrated,” he declared. “It’s no wonder why we can really give no other explanation other than ‘This law was a corrupt law.’”
In the genteel halls of power in Richmond, Rasoul’s blunt critique of his colleagues’ coziness with monopolies ruffled more than a few feathers. “I’d be willing to guess that nobody on the House floor has ever called a bill related to Dominion corrupt,” said Quentin Kidd, a Virginia politics expert at Christopher Newport University. “Having it happen does represent a tectonic shift in Virginia’s political landscape.”
A tectonic shift, perhaps, but not enough of one to win so much as a committee vote. There are lessons here for Democrats newly energized on the issue of corporate concentration. Bringing monopolies back into a mostly discarded regulatory framework won’t be easy. The status quo is durable because it is lucrative for a lot powerful actors. In the case of Virginia, undermining the prerogatives of Dominion means undermining the prerogatives of fellow legislators, too; for Democrats in the Virginia House and Senate, there’s even a perception that it could mean hurting their own chances at recapturing the chambers in 2019.
Rasoul and the neo-Brandeis caucus in the Virginia legislature failed in this round of efforts to rein in Dominion, in part because the public monopoly has long benefited from a different sort of market distortion: political monopsony. When it comes to votes on energy regulation, Dominion is the only buyer in town.
The ‘Ultimate Irony’ Of Pro-Monopoly Democrats
The Democratic Party put corporate monopoly at the heart of “A Better Deal,” the platform it released in July. The issue was a throwback just as surely as the slogan was — the old anti-bigness of the New Deal, recast for an era in which the downsides of bigness had become undeniable. The Democrats’ argument was simple: Excessively large companies, with the power to squeeze not only consumers but workers and small businesses, are an engine of inequality.
Among other things, the party embraced a higher legal threshold for the approval of corporate mergers and a “21st-century trust buster,” or antitrust czar, to enforce new regulations.
“We are going to fight to allow regulators to break up big companies if they’re hurting consumers and to make it harder for companies to merge if it reduces competition,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a New York Times op-ed touting the plan.
This was a rhetorical reversal of a pro-monopoly consensus that had held since the late 1960s. Lawyers, economists and politicians in both parties laid the groundwork for decades of mega-mergers and anti-competitive practices by market leaders. An antitrust orthodoxy based on protecting and encouraging market competition gave way to one based exclusively on consumer welfare, i.e. lower prices ― when antitrust concerns were considered at all.
The result has been an anti-democratic economy in which a few big players dominate entire industries. For example, Google and Facebook take in 85 percent of internet advertising dollars, effectively allowing them to dictate terms to content creators. And in the airline industry, which once had nine major competitors, four companies now sell 80 percent of tickets.
A growing body of research suggests that corporate consolidation has depressed worker pay, particularly in less populous areas where consolidation has reduced the already small number of employers. It has disrupted the geographic distribution of wealth, enabling a handful of coastal enclaves to boom even as the middle of the country struggles.
To me the Democratic Party represents people fighting against the aggregation of power and wealth in the hands of a few people. Virginia state Sen. Chap Petersen (D)
While national Democrats and a new cohort of liberal policy experts are trying to broaden the public understanding about the effects of corporate consolidation, the fight in Virginia is at once simpler and more challenging.
Reformers here have their sights set on taming the state’s utility monopolies, which, unlike Amazon and Google, are literal monopolies operating with the blessing of the state.
Dominion and its predecessor, the Virginia Electric Power Company, or VEPCO, have long drawn the indignation of the state’s populists.
The heyday of the anti-Dominion movement was in the 1970s. At that time, “Howlin’” Henry Howell, a Democratic state lawmaker turned lieutenant governor who is widely considered the state’s most successful left populist politician, led the fight for stiffer regulation of VEPCO and won refunds for ratepayers. In 1977, Howell upset the establishment by nabbing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with the help of organized labor and African-American groups. He campaigned on a platform of taking on the “Big Boys,” including VEPCO, which he playfully dubbed the “Very Expensive Power Company.”
But Howell ended up losing the governor’s race, a defeat for his populist ideology as well. With his loss, Virginia’s anti-monopoly movement went into hibernation, taking a back seat to the pro-corporate consensus in both parties for the better part of four decades.
It would reawaken in 2017, due to rising indignation with Dominion’s pricing and environmental practices, and a general anger at the influence of money, brought into focus by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, over the state’s politics.
“What’s happened in the last two decades is that the Democratic Party has evolved in such a way that it’s very skeptical of business, monopoly business and the coziness it has with legislators,” Kidd said.
On the one hand, the fact that the anti-monopoly fight in Virginia is centered on public utilities makes winning accountability more challenging, since the electric power industry is one where even passionate antitrust advocates believe monopolies are sometimes necessary to ensure people have reliable access to power.
At the same time, absent any need to compete for consumers, government regulation of prices is that much more urgent. And in those circumstances, a state’s abdication of its regulatory authority is all the more egregious, according to Virginia Sen. Chap Petersen (D), the most prominent Dominion critic in the state Senate.
“The number one point I’d like to make ― I’d like to make it in Virginia, and I’d like to make it nationally ― is that public monopolies should not be writing their own regulatory laws,” Petersen said.
Petersen, the vice chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic caucus, considers it the “ultimate irony” that Virginia Democrats have not yet made antitrust a “party issue.”
“To me the Democratic Party represents people fighting against the aggregation of power and wealth in the hands of a few people,” he said. “As Democrats… we believe in giving people a chance, not just the powerful people.”
The Virginia Exception
The utility companies that provide power to consumers across the country typically operate as monopolies, because it is not profitable enough for a company to compete for customers while maintaining and operating the infrastructure needed to deliver power.
That creates a problem for consumers, though, since competition is ordinarily what keeps prices low. Some states and cities have responded to the challenge by taking over private utilities and operating them directly.
However, states and cities usually address the inherent problems associated with monopoly through regulation. In exchange for an exemption from antitrust laws, state governments get the final say in these monopolies’ utility rates. These regulators have the authority to approve or disapprove of rate hikes, with the goal of ensuring that the companies do not raise rates higher than is necessary to provide an attractive return for equity holders. If a regulator determines that a company has been overcharging customers, it can also order a refund.
Until recently, Virginia functioned in much the same way, at least on paper. Dominion dominates the household utility market, providing power to some 2.5 million homes and businesses ― more than two-thirds of the state’s electricity customers. Virginians living in Dominion’s domain cannot choose a different utility; neither can customers of Appalachian Power, the second-largest utility, or those who receive their power from one of 11 energy cooperatives in other parts of the state. But Virginia’s State Corporation Commission kept a watchful eye with biannual reviews of the utilities to make sure the rates they charged their customers, and the building projects they initiated, were justified.
Then, in February 2015, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, signed a bipartisan law enacted by the GOP-controlled Virginia legislature that effectively robbed the SCC of its ability to do its job for six years.
The legislation froze Dominion and Appalachian Power’s base utility rates through 2020 and 2021, respectively, and simultaneously deprived the state utility regulator of the power to review the monopolies’ finances through those years.
On its face, the so-called “rate-freeze” bill gave both Virginia’s biggest utilities and their customers a square deal: frozen rates in exchange for a hiatus of regulatory oversight.
And Dominion claimed it needed the extra breathing room to comply with the now-defunct Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration initiative that required utilities to switch to cleaner power sources.
In Virginia, that’s out the window, and the ratepayer is left holding the bag as a result. John Howat, National Consumer Law Center
But critics believed Dominion and Appalachian had used their political clout to lock in high base rates and avoid having to lower them in years when its earnings ballooned. The law also spared the company oversight on the considerable fees not included in the base rate that typically form about 40 percent of a monthly bill.
Sure enough, the SCC found in September that Dominion collected excess profits in 2016 that would have required it to refund $133 million to customers were it not for the 2015 law. Had Dominion not expensed the cost of a coal ash cleanup, a decision that the SCC previously would have been able to challenge, the company would’ve been on the hook for refunds ranging from $396 million to $426 million.
In addition, the SCC’s report reflects its best effort at oversight without the ability to actually audit Dominion’s books, as it had the power to do prior to the rate-freeze law. It also does not include potential over-earnings in 2017.
Consumer advocates were amazed that a utility monopoly had successfully shepherded a law that shielded it from regulation ― even temporarily.
“What Dominion was able to accomplish in 2015 is pretty remarkable,” said Shannon Baker-Branstetter, senior policy counsel at the Washington-based Consumer Union.
It has little if any precedent in other states, where utilities are also frequently powerful political forces, according to Baker-Branstetter.
“I’m not aware of another case where this has happened on this scale ― certainly not in recent memory,” she said.
John Howat, senior energy analyst at the National Consumer Law Center, offered a damning assessment.
“In most states, the regulator has at least the option of doing its job. They can issue orders and decisions and open their own proceedings. There are all kinds of avenues to accomplish the regulatory duties that these statutorily authorized agencies have,” Howat said. “In Virginia, that’s out the window, and the ratepayer is left holding the bag as a result.”
Ashley Brown, a former Ohio public utility commissioner who now heads the Harvard Electricity Policy Group, said that, as a rule, stripping regulators of decision-making power is “poor public policy.”
“If the legislature wants to have hearings about what the regulator is doing, that’s fine, they have every right to do that,” Brown said. “But to deprive them of the powers that they need to carry out their job is not a great idea.”
Rolling Back A ‘Corrupt’ Law?
Even before the SCC’s report showing that the 2015 rate-freeze law was preventing a massive refund to ratepayers, the legislation incurred bipartisan blowback. Liberal consumer groups joined conservatives angry about the specter of a profit-making entity charging consumers without either competition or regulation to keep prices in check.
When industrial electricity customers sued the SCC to challenge the constitutionality of the rate-freeze law, former state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican who heads the hard-line Senate Conservatives Fund, co-authored an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs on behalf of the Virginia Poverty Law Center and the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council. (The Virginia Supreme Court came down against the plaintiffs in a 6-1 ruling in September.)
“From a conservative standpoint, what bothers me here is the cronyism, one, and the further deviation from something approaching free-market pricing as we can achieve,” Cuccinelli told HuffPost. “It hurts everybody ― it hurts the poor, it hurts business, it hurts opportunity.”
Cuccinelli’s remark about “cronyism” refers to the way Dominion has used its considerable financial largesse to get its way in the Virginia legislature.
Virginia’s lax campaign finance rules make the company’s job a lot easier. The state permits unlimited campaign donations from corporations and individuals.
Since 1996, when the Virginia Public Access Project began collecting campaign finance data, the company has donated $11.1 million to Virginia politicians and political committees in both parties ― more than any other private-industry donor. This was the subject of Sam Rasoul’s Jan. 17 speech.
More subtly, Dominion exercises its influence through its technical expertise and sheer manpower. Virginia has a part-time legislature that convenes from January to March for marathon committee meetings and floor votes. Few lawmakers have the funding, staff or time to adequately vet the claims of Dominion lawyers and lobbyists about complex utility rate legislation.
Dominion has “had a monopoly on information,” lamented Petersen, the state senator.
And unlike, say, the Chamber of Commerce, which goes toe to toe with labor unions in fights over the minimum wage, Dominion is “operating alone,” Petersen said. “They have an army of lobbyists. There’s no countervailing authority.”
Virginia, unlike many other states, also does not have a state office devoted exclusively to defending the rights of utility ratepayers, according to Howat. The attorney general has a consumer affairs division, but it does not compare to, say, Maryland’s Office of People’s Counsel, Howat said.
“If there is going to be ratepayer money that is going to guarantee anything,” Howat argued, “some of that money ought to go to fund a real public advocate.”
From a conservative standpoint, what bothers me here is the cronyism, one, and the further deviation from something approaching free-market pricing as we can achieve. Ken Cuccinelli, former Virginia attorney general
That changed ever so slightly this past election with the advent of Activate Virginia, an unlikely David to Dominion’s Goliath. Josh Stanfield, a 31-year-old who returned in 2015 from a five-year teaching stint in South Korea, created the group with virtually no money shortly after the 2016 election. Stanfield had little formal political experience, but he was inspired to get involved by Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid and his call to end the corrupting influence of money in politics. He operates Activate Virginia from his laptop ― bouncing from his mother’s home in southeast Virginia to political events across the state ― with the help of two volunteers.
But in Virginia’s November 2017 elections, the group punched above its weight, securing a pledge from 74 House candidates and two candidates for lieutenant governor to refuse donations from Dominion and Appalachian. Stanfield is now executive director of the legislature’s People’s Caucus, which grew out of his group’s pledge.
“I can’t recall any candidates in the past having these conversations,” said Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D), a first-time legislator who took Activate Virginia’s pledge. “Activate Virginia did a good job of bringing it to the attention of people that this is what is happening in the Virginia Assembly.”
Former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello raised the issue’s profile, making Dominion and Appalachian’s influences a central part of his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Although Perriello did not formally agree to Activate Virginia’s pledge, he vowed at a February 2017 press conference not “to take one dime from Dominion.” Since the 2017 election, he has made combating monopolies and their influence on the legislature a key focus of his new PAC, the New Virginia Way.
The success of Activate Virginia’s slate ― and other candidates like Del. Chris Hurst (D), who vowed to take on Dominion and Appalachian without formally adopting Activate Virginia’s pledge ― gave Petersen, Rasoul and others hope that the new legislature would curb at least some of Dominion’s power.
“I look forward to being able to work with Gov. Northam to repeal the rate-freeze bill as soon as possible,” Rasoul told HuffPost in November.
But when the legislature reconvened in January, Dominion proved surprisingly resilient.
The state Senate’s Committee on Commerce and Labor killed Petersen’s “clean” repeal bill, which would’ve simply undone the rate-freeze legislation, in a 13-1 vote on Jan. 15. The one vote to save the bill came from Sen. Richard Stuart, a Republican.
The following day, in a 12-2 vote, the Committee on Privileges and Elections killed a second piece of legislation introduced by Petersen that would have barred Virginia candidates from accepting donations from state-regulated utility companies.
Rayhan Daudani, a spokesman for Dominion, claimed it would be impractical to return to the pre-2015 regulatory framework, which dates to 2007.
“We’re not in a 2007 world,” he said. “You can imagine in 2007 nobody was worried about carbon regulation to the degree they’re worried about it now, solar energy hadn’t really proliferated to the degree ― it just wasn’t cost-effective to the degree it is now.”
Petersen rejected the idea that subjecting Dominion’s rates to regulatory review would limit its ability to invest appropriately in infrastructure. He noted that the previous regulatory framework allowed Dominion and other utilities to reinvest 30 percent of over-earnings in infrastructure. The 2007 law, he said, was “already one of most generous laws in the nation for a public monopoly.”
“As a reason to avoid rate review, this is frankly grasping,” he added.
Following the defeat in the state Senate of the clean repeal bills, a group of Dominion-friendly legislators introduced their versions of utility rate legislation in both chambers of the legislature. Under the guise of reform, the two companion bills actually scaled back the State Corporation Commission’s authority even further than it had been under the 2015 rate-freeze law.
After some revisions, the legislation specified that Dominion would make the one-time refund of $133 million to its ratepayers in 2018, and $67 million in 2019. Appalachian would have to give its ratepayers a cost reduction equal to $10 million.
But aside from those concessions, the new legislation locks in so many regulatory carve-outs that many experts believe it is worse for consumers than the 2015 rate-freeze law.
For one thing, the bill lengthens the utility rate review period to three years from the two-year interval in place before the 2015 law. Since the SCC can only order a base rate reduction after two consecutive reviews show the utility has been over-earning, the new law would lengthen the period of time before which a rate reduction would become a possibility to six years.
Then, after six years, even if the SCC found that the companies had been over-earning over two consecutive review periods, the legislation grants Dominion and Appalachian the opportunity to reinvest any over-earnings into renewable energy investment and grid modernization, in lieu of issuing mandatory refunds to their ratepayers.
That ain’t capitalism. That ain’t merits. It’s the old-boy network. Scott Hempling, utilities regulation attorney
The SCC, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, and the bill’s opponents in the legislature, say this provision is a license to “double dip,” or charge ratepayers for infrastructure once through rate payments, and again through the recycling of over-earnings that should be refunded.
“Effectively, customers will be paying twice for some of these investments,” Sam Towell, deputy attorney general for civil litigation, testified to both the Senate and House committees on commerce and labor.
For Scott Hempling, an attorney who specializes in utility regulation and who once worked for Virginia’s SCC, substituting potential refunds for ratepayers with renewable energy investments amounts to a smoke-and-mirrors public relations gimmick.
The clause enables Dominion to burnish its renewable energy credentials and effectively get a no-bid contract to construct new infrastructure courtesy of its ratepayers, according to Hempling.
Under different circumstances, Virginia might have an open bidding process in which contractors compete to modernize the grid and integrate more renewable energy resources, he said. But if Dominion gets it way, it will have first crack at the infrastructure, with excess profits from its captive ratepayers, Hempling said.
He compared it to a job going to “the boss’ son,” rather than to the most qualified person.
“That ain’t capitalism. That ain’t merits. It’s the old-boy network,” Hempling said.
What’s more, the legislation defines many of the same infrastructure investments that Dominion could make with its over-earnings as being “in the public interest,” and therefore automatically fast-tracked for SCC approval. In a letter to lawmakers, the SCC projected that the provision undermines the body’s ability to assess projects’ cost-effectiveness, which could “potentially result in billions of dollars of additional costs that must be borne by customers in higher rates.”
“That’s a departure from the normal state of affairs where the regulator and stakeholders have an opportunity” to jointly weigh a variety of factors associated with capital investments, including usefulness and cost-efficiency and the burden on ratepayers, the NCLC’s John Howat said.
It’s an especially pressing concern regarding Dominion, which, unlike many utilities, is a vertically integrated company that owns many of the power plants and gas wells that power the electricity it sells to Virginia customers. Without a regulator’s oversight, Dominion has little incentive to update the grid with an eye toward efficiency, since less efficient forms of energy delivery might actually pad its bottom line, Howat said.
“This appears to me to be self-dealing,” he said.
Dominion’s influence over the drafting of the legislation was obvious. The draft copy of the bills, SB 966 in the Senate and HB 1558 in the House, included a note at the top: “Legislation not prepared by the DLS.” The sentence informs people that the Division of Legislative Services, the legislature’s in-house law-writing service, did not author the bill.
Given the personnel and legal expertise needed to draft the nearly identical 21-page bills, multiple sources with knowledge of the matter told HuffPost that it is almost impossible they were written by the staff of a lawmaker. They were instead likely drafted by Dominion’s staff, the sources posited.
Asked whether Dominion authored the legislation, Daudani wrote in an email: “Legislation is the consensus product of many authors. We worked with other stakeholders for several months to provide input on the bill which a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced.”
What’s more, the lawmakers who co-sponsored the Dominion-backed bills are a who’s who of the utility giant’s darlings in the legislature. State Sens. Dick Saslaw (D) and Frank Wagner (R) and Del. Terry Kilgore (R) are some of the General Assembly’s biggest recipients of Dominion donations, receiving a combined sum of nearly $600,000 from the company in the past two decades.
Del. Lamont Bagby (D), another co-sponsor of the legislation, is the director of operations at a charity that has received significant donations from Dominion and its CEO, Thomas Farrell, for several years. Farrell contributed $100,000 to the Peter Paul Center, where Bagby works, in 2016, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in January.
Bagby, who claims he did not know about the contributions, told the Times-Dispatch, “I should have looked at that prior to signing on, but I think [the bill] is the right thing for my constituents.”
Dominion ‘On The Defensive’?
Of the Virginia lawmakers with close ties to Dominion, Dick Saslaw, the Senate Democratic leader, is perhaps the most outspoken about his faith in the company. From 1996 through 2017, he received $328,008 in campaign donations from Dominion, more than any other lawmaker.
Saslaw insists that Dominion’s largesse has never influenced how he votes. But in January, The Associated Press got its hands on an email exchange from several years ago in which a top Dominion executive complained to Saslaw when the state Democratic Party slammed a GOP lawmaker for excessive friendliness to Dominion. The executive, Bob Blue, told Saslaw the company was “very disappointed,” and reminded him of how “our company has supported Democrats over the years.”
Saslaw responded apologetically, expressing regret that he had not done his “homework” on “how generous Dominion has been to me.”
Saslaw has not made the same mistake again. He proved a crucial cheerleader for the Dominion-backed energy bill as it made its way through the Senate. In response to concerns that the bill allowed the company to “double dip,” Saslaw insisted last week that lawmakers could place their trust in Dominion lobbyist Jack Rust, a former General Assembly colleague.
“If he tells you this thing cannot be double-counted, you can pretty much take that to the bank,” Saslaw said.
Whether or not Saslaw’s peers found his argument compelling, he ultimately got his way. The state Senate went on to pass the bill on Friday in a 26-13 vote, with seven Republicans and six Democrats voting against it.
The Dominion-backed bill is due to come up for a vote on the House floor early this week, where it is widely expected to pass. Rasoul’s version of the clean rate-freeze repeal bill that Petersen introduced in the Senate died in subcommittee.
And last week, Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a recipient of direct and indirect Dominion largesse totaling more than $197,000 over the course of his career, signaled that the legislation would receive his signature, notwithstanding the objections of his attorney general. Northam maintains that Dominion has done enough to address the ”significant concerns″ he expressed about the legislation in January, and he does not believe the legislation will result in double-charging. In his statement supporting the Dominion-backed bill, Northam cited the utilities’ investment of $1.1 billion in energy efficiency projects and low-income energy assistance, and the bill’s instructions to the SCC to fast-track the approval of 5,000 megawatts of solar and wind energy projects.
“This compromise puts more money in ratepayers’ pockets, ensures real oversight of utility rates, paves the way for significant upgrades to Virginia’s electrical grid, and mandates historic investments in energy efficiency and clean power,” Northam said.
So when I caught up with Saslaw after the Senate adjourned on Friday, I expected to find him in high spirits. But his face reddened with anger as I asked about the legislation, beginning with a question about the attorney general office’s concern that the bill would enable the utilities to double-charge ratepayers.
“There’s no double-charging. Zero. Zero,” he declared, strands of his white hair bouncing as he spoke. He raised his voice: “Zero! Read the bill!”
I had consulted legal experts who read the bill and read the SCC’s letter assessing the bill’s impact, I told him.
“Well, the donors got some experts, too, OK?” he replied. “And they said there’s no double-charging. It appears to me there is a debate over who the experts are.”
Asked how he responded to criticism that the legislation would enable Dominion to get out of issuing refunds in years when it was over-earning, Saslaw sarcastically feigned outrage, claiming that past refunds never amounted to more than a few dollars a month.
“My God! We could have turned the whole state into Warren Buffett,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper with mock urgency. “Bill Gates, look out!”
Let’s chalk up Saslaw’s testiness to the fact that advancing Dominion’s agenda in the legislature isn’t as easy as it used to be. Even Friday’s 26-13 vote suggests that lawmakers’ tolerance for Dominion’s influence is wearing thin. The legislation passed “easily,” Saslaw said. But the 2015 rate-freeze bill, the last major utility rate bill that Dominion passed, was enacted by the significantly wider margin of 32-6.
And Saslaw has elicited public criticism for his coziness with Dominion, including from David Jonas, a former Perriello policy director, who tweeted, “We absolutely cannot let this man become Majority Leader in 2019.” Jonas is rumored to be considering a primary run against Saslaw.
Some of the Dominion-backed bill’s supporters argue that the political backlash against Dominion had forced the company to make significant concessions, including the investment in weatherization of low-income homes.
“They were affected by public opinion pretty heavily. Of the 15 new Democrats elected to the House of Delegates, they all sort of ran against Dominion,” said state Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat from southwest Virginia.
Edwards voted against the 2015 rate freeze law and said he would have supported a clean repeal bill this time around. But given the political impossibility of clean repeal, the commitment to making low-income homes more fuel-efficient, among other things, was enough to earn Edwards’ vote for the Dominion-backed bill that passed Friday.
The weatherization of low-income homes “wouldn’t have happened without this bill. The utilities just wouldn’t have done it,” he said.
Other legislators were less thrilled with the way the process had taken shape. Dawn Adams, a new delegate from Richmond who took Activate Virginia’s pledge, was one of the last lawmakers left in the legislature’s Pocahontas office building on Friday evening. She wanted to pore over the flurry of last-minute changes that had been stuffed in the bill ahead of the House vote next week. She was frustrated by how quickly the legislation was being rammed through the chamber.
“As a new legislator, the deck is stacked to not understand it well,” she said. “I’ve had conversations with legislators who’ve been here for quite some time who are also struggling to understand it well.”
Adams said that Activate Virginia’s Josh Stanfield is “helpful” in this regard. His presence, she said, ensures that “there is at least one advocate for the other side that I get information from.”
Stanfield views Dominion’s eager push to enact the utility-rate bill as the last gasp of a monopoly that knows its days of impunity are numbered. Dominion is desperate to fight off new oversight precisely because it understands that the political “allure” of securing refunds for utility ratepayers will eventually prove irresistible to state lawmakers, Stanfield ventured.
“How many times as a politician can you get a check to every single constituent?” he said.
For Petersen, the fact that people like Adams are even expressing their concerns so vocally shows that Dominion is “on the defensive” ― and that the political debate is moving in the right direction.
Most importantly, the political monopsony long enjoyed by Dominion is also under assault. Michael Bills, an aptly named Democratic megadonor from Charlottesville, announced Thursday that he would shelling out big money as a counterweight to Dominion’s influence. Bills, a wealthy investor who donated $566,000 to Northam’s campaign, has promised to contribute $5,000 to delegates and $20,000 to senators who pledge to reject money or gifts from Dominion and to divest from the company. The contributions will be distributed by the Clean Virginia Project, a new branch of Tom Perriello’s New Virginia Way PAC.
And last week, Activate Virginia announced that a majority of Democrats running for Virginia U.S. House seats had taken its pledge to refuse Dominion and Appalachian donations.
“Ten years ago, this issue wasn’t even talked about. It was like homosexuality 50 years ago,” Petersen said. “People now are awake. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t put it back.”