We are now ending the last full week of the 2018 Session prior to crossover. As explained last week, the Senate and House will have to finish work on bills originating in their own chambers by Tuesday. This has been a week full of contention.
One of the most contentious issues of the session relates to rate setting for utility companies. In 2015, Dominion Power pushed a bill through the legislature which essentially froze part of their rates, disabled the State Corporation Commission from rate-setting reviews for a period of years, and locked in Dominion’s revenues. Dominion argued that action was needed because of the expected financial impacts of adoption of the federal Clean Power Plan. I voted against that bill because I thought it was a bad deal for the ratepayers. Interestingly, one of the “concessions” that Dominion made in that deal to get the Governor’s support and that of some environmentally-minded Democrats was a commitment to produce 500 megawatts of solar energy by 2020. That goal was attained in 2017. As anyone who watches the markets knows, the cost of solar energy is going down and the demand is going up. Hindsight being 20-20, we now know that the “concession” made in 2015 was a low bar.
As everyone knows, the Clean Power Plan never took effect. However, efforts to repeal the 2015 legislation have been rebuffed. This year legislation has developed following a mediation hosted by the Governor between Dominion, environmental groups, consumer advocates and others. The compromise certainly accomplishes some important things. It returns about $200 million in excess profits to Dominion’s ratepayers over the next two years. Dominion will also return to ratepayers roughly $125 million a year from the federal tax plan that passed last December. Of course, the Attorney General says that Dominion has received more than $420 million a year in excess profits since 2015. The compromise will return Dominion’s rate making to the State Corporation Commission for review, but on a triennial basis rather than a review every two years. It will require Dominion to produce 5000 megawatts of renewable energy by 2028.
The bill passed the Senate today. In advance of the vote, I reviewed the provisions of the bill and analysis from the State Corporation Commission. As I indicated, I think the market is already heading towards renewables, so I am not impressed by the provisions of this bill requiring Dominion to produce energy from renewable sources. Even the many environmental groups supporting the bill concede we are probably heading in that direction anyway. There is no question that the bill is good for the shareholders of Dominion Resources. I want those people to do well. However, my job as a legislator is to look out for all Virginians. The bottom line is that I think this bill is bad for consumers, so I voted no.
Also this past week, the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee took another step toward an unseemly form of politics – while not unprecedented, it was outside the norm. Typically Governors of either party are given broad latitude in their appointment powers. My view has always been that Governors rise or fall on their appointments. I have not always agreed with the choices, but not being the Governor, they were not mine to make. For the fourth time this session, the Committee removed one of the Governor’s appointments from the resolutions approving the selections. This time it was somewhat personal.
Susan Swecker of Highland County served as the chair of the State Compensation Board under Governor McAuliffe and was reappointed to that position by Governor Northam. People who know me know that Susan has been a longtime friend and confidante. She managed my campaign in 1991 for the House of Delegates and my 2005 campaign for Attorney General. She currently serves as the Chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. I guess her work in that capacity has rubbed some people wrong, but there have been no complaints about her service on the Board. A word of caution is that what goes around comes around. The hyper partisanship that resides in Washington should not slip 100 miles south to Richmond, but I fear that creep is constantly at work.
This week saw the advancement or demise of various pieces of legislation on which I have been working.
- My budget priorities this year relate to mental health, and I have co-sponsored a number of amendments to reflect the work of the Joint Subcommittee I chair. In addition to those budget items, I am seeking money to fund a circuit court judgeship in the 16th and a general district court judgeship in the 25th. I am continuing to push for a state park in Highland County and reestablishing funding for the Beehive Grant Program. All of those budget amendments are still under consideration by the Senate Finance Committee. The House and Senate budget proposals will not be released until Sunday, February 18.
- Bills designed to authorize DEQ to stop work on the proposed pipeline projects in the event of stormwater management or soil erosion issues have advanced through the Senate. Both bills are now awaiting action in the House of Delegates.
- Legislation to allow Albemarle County to require snow removal from neighborhood sidewalks has advanced through committee and will be voted on by the full Senate early next week. Likewise with bills to permit local governing bodies to appoint elected officials to local tourism boards and to allow Highland County to levy a fee for emergency services.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve. If you have any questions or concerns about legislation pending before the legislature or need assistance with a state government agency, please call my office at (804) 698-7525 or send me an email at [email protected]. You can also view the daily floor sessions and Senate committee meetings here. I look forward to hearing from you.