One of the few legislators pushing back against Dominion Energy Virginia’s influence over state government said Thursday that he hopes to harness a populist wave against the energy giant to pass major reforms in Virginia.
Those include a new ban on campaign contributions from Dominion and other public service corporations, as well as an upheaval at the State Corporation Commission, the government branch tasked with regulating utilities and other businesses.
State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, wants to add two members to that commission, which is elected by the General Assembly and decides whether electric rate increases are merited. That would bring it up to five members.
Petersen also wants to add a layer to that process, empowering new “intervenors” to represent consumers before the commission as it weighs rate hike requests. It was unclear Thursday how this would differ from what the Attorney General’s Office does now in commission rate cases, as it’s tasked with representing consumers at the SCC.
Petersen laid out five proposals in all Thursday, including a pitch he made last year to undo rate freezes that passed the General Assembly in 2015 and may allow Dominion to exceed the profit margin laid out for the company by state regulation. That freeze was pitched as an answer to uncertainty created by Obama-era clean power regulations, but legislators balked at a rollback this year, despite the Trump administration jettisoning those rules.
Petersen said all these proposals will be ready for the 2018 legislative session. He said the donation ban is more important than all the others combined.
Company spokesman David Botkins said Dominion will follow the law regardless of what it is, but he said if a new rule forbids company employees from making campaign donations through Dominion’s political action committee, that might infringe free speech.
Botkins suggested Dominion’s financial influence gets overstated because it’s such a large entity in the state, with some 76,000 employees, retirees and shareholders. If you compare the company’s giving to other sectors — for example, banking, real estate and the environmental lobby — Dominion drops on the list of most generous donors in a state that allows unlimited campaign donations.
“Everybody is participating and to exclude us from participation, but no other industry, seems a bit odd,” he said.
Dominion is the most generous donor among corporations, though, and so influential in Richmond that Petersen’s proposals might have generated widespread scoffs just a year ago. But with a governor’s race this year and President Donald Trump’s election demonstrating the outrage many feel against legacy institutions, some calls for reform have gone mainstream.
More than 60 House of Delegates candidates, most of them Democrats, have signed a pledge not to accept Dominion contributions. None currently hold a seat in the House.
Petersen’s early rollout for bills that can’t actually be filed until November suggests a desire to draw more attention to the issues ahead of the June 13 primaries. Already former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, running in the Democratic primary for governor, treats Dominion like an opponent, opposing its natural gas pipeline plans and calling for a ban on donations from state regulated monopolies, including Dominion.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a ban on all corporate giving as part of his campaign for governor. The Democrat also has proposed a donation cap on individuals at $10,000.
Northam has taken more than $52,000 from Dominion over the years, and more from its executives. Perriello got half his campaign war chest in this race from three entities, including liberal billionaire George Soros.
Petersen said he’s not accusing anyone of being bought and sold by donations and said “you don’t unilaterally disarm in this business.”
“I have no problem with them,” he said of colleagues who take money from Dominion, which has given Petersen’s own campaigns about $22,500 over the years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
“I have a problem with the system,” Petersen said.
On the Republican side, gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie has a 15-point reform plan that includes a new ban on the personal use of campaign funds — something current law allows up until a politician’s retirement — and a ban on fundraising during special legislative sessions.
Current law forbids elected officials from raising money only during regular sessions.
Gillespie has not proposed a ban on corporate giving or for state-regulated utilities. Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart would support such a ban, his campaign said Thursday.
State Sen. Frank Wagner, the third candidate in the GOP governor’s race, has been a Dominion defender. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored the rate freeze legislation two years ago and said this year there is still too much uncertainty in energy regulation to merit repeal.
Petersen said Thursday he may not get his reforms through in 2018, but he predicted eventual success.
“This issue is trending in our direction,” he said.
Just how stiff a populist wind is truly blowing against Dominion remains to be seen, though. The company sent a letter to employees, retirees and shareholders this week that, among other things, noted the importance of its natural gas pipeline and the fact that gubernatorial primaries are June 13.
“Please take the time to review the candidates’ positions and see how they stand on critical projects such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” the letter said.
Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.