A Virginia Senate committee on Monday killed a series of bills that advocates had argued were needed to free up state regulators to set electric rates that are reasonable and fair.
The Senate Commerce and Labor committee made quick work of deciding not to advance the five bills, which had all cleared the House of Delegates with bipartisan support.
Advocates of the bills had seen this legislative session as the best chance in years to beef up the power of the State Corporation Commission to lower rates and order customer refunds.
Politically powerful Dominion Energy Virginia, the state’s largest electric utility, has routinely pushed through legislation that minimized the chances that it would have to lower its rates. That's despite regulators having routinely found that the electric monopoly’s rates provide excessive profit, including a report last year that found Dominion earned $503 million above authorized levels in 2017 through 2019.
“The bottom line is that Dominion in particular, has base rates that are producing excessive monopoly profits and current law renders the SCC powerless to do anything about it,” senior assistant attorney general Meade Browder said last week while testifying in support of one of the measures.
That bill would have allowed regulators to spread out the costs of large utility expenses, which would limit the ability to front-load costs and avoid having to lower rates or give refunds.
Another bill would have made ostensibly minor wording changes to state code in ways that advocates said would help restore the commission's discretion over electric rates.
Much of the work of discussing the bills and hearing comment on them was done in a subcommittee meeting last week. During that hearing, Republican and Democrat lawmakers raised concerns about timing. Lawmakers said they didn’t want to get in the way of Dominion's upcoming rate case before the commission later this year or Appalachian Power's pending legal fight over a commission decision rejecting a request for a rate increase.
One senator, Democrat Lionel Spruill, seemed annoyed with that line of reasoning, asking a Dominion lobbyist during discussion about one measure: “When will be the right time for him to bring this bill forward?”
On Monday, the full committee voted to send a letter to the Commission on Electric Utility Regulation, asking the group to study several of the bills.
That request was initially met with some opposition.
“I don’t see where that would do any good at all,” Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw said.
Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat, said he hoped that the commission could do more to take up the issues when the General Assembly isn't meeting rather than when lawmakers are "here with a gun at our head, and all these other bills going on and decisions to make in short hearings.”
Asked for comment about the outcome of the hearing, Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani wrote that the company's customers “pay rates more than 10% below the national average with very reliable service and an industry leading clean energy portfolio.”
Clean Virginia, an organization founded in an effort to counter Dominion's influence at the General Assembly, issued a statement noting the substantial sums lawmakers on the committee have accepted from Dominion and Appalachian Power — $1.2 million to eight of the senators, according to the group's accounting.
“What we witnessed in today’s committee is a blatant corruption of the democratic process. Until voters change the makeup of this committee, powerful utility monopolies will continue not only to write favorable legislation, but to rig the entire legislative process thanks to Senators compromised by their clear financial and personal interests,” Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore said in a statement.