Major issues are sometimes avoided during our odd-year, 46-day short sessions. However, this year we have seen many significant policy proposals working their way through the process. Two big issues I have been involved in this year involve electricity rate setting and working to bring down the price of pharmaceuticals. Both bills seek to reduce costs to Virginia’s consumers.
Jennifer McClellan, a Democrat from Richmond, and I serve as chief patrons of the Affordable Energy Act. An identical bill was introduced in the House of Delegates by Lee Ware, a Republican from Powhatan, and Rip Sullivan, a Democrat from Fairfax. The bill seeks to bring more reliable and lower cost energy to Virginia consumers. In large part, the hope is to achieve that by returning power to the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review and set rates.
For many years, electricity has been a hot potato in Virginia. Henry Howell, the noted populist who ran for Governor three times in the 1960s and 70s, once said that there was something more than Santa Claus is slipping around in the dark. He was referring to the Virginia Electric and Power Company, then known as VEPCO, now known as Dominion.
Electricity in Virginia is a regulated monopoly. In exchange for having to provide power within their territory, while they operate as monopolies, the utilities are subject to regulation. Historically, rate setting, the cost of electricity, has been reviewed and regulated by the SCC. Beginning in the late 90s, Dominion backed bills to wrest power away from the SCC. I have consistently resisted those efforts, as I felt it would simply drive up cost and be harmful to consumers.
The Affordable Energy Act would restore full power to the SCC to review, on a regular basis, the rates. Over the years, where regulation has been relaxed, Dominion has clearly overcharged their customers. Virginias still pay a lower rate than a lot of Americans, but we can do better, and we owe it to our constituents to make sure they are paying the lowest rate for electric power.
In the meantime, Senator Dick Saslaw, a Democrat from Fairfax, and Delegate Terry Kilgore, a Republican from Scott County, have been promoting legislation supported by Dominion that also restores power to the SCC. Their proposal, however, does so over a period of years. The legislation, which comes at a time when Dominion’s stock has lost ground, is complex and is precisely why these matters should be reviewed by the SCC. That legislation is moving forward as well, without my support.
I am also honored to be a the chief co-patron of Senate Bill 957, which was introduced by Senator Chap Petersen, a Democrat from Fairfax City. For the entire time I have served in the General Assembly, constituents have expressed concerns to me about the growing cost of prescription medication. Too many people in Virginia have had to make a choice between buying prescriptions or buying food, paying rent, or doing other things necessary to survive. No one should be forced to choose between basic necessities and their health.
The legislation creates a Prescription Drug Affordability Board to constantly examine the wholesale and retail cost of prescription medications and to bring the cost down. This approach has been adopted by a number of states, including Maryland, which has begun this work already. While the bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, the administration opposes it. In the event we can shepherd SB 957 through both houses of the General Assembly and to the Governor’s desk, we have no assurance that he will sign the bill. It is still a fight worth taking on.
This week brought many visitors to Richmond, including good friends lobbying for criminal justice reform, representatives of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, multiple groups of UVA students – some advocating for climate protections and some with Virginia21, and a group of middle school students from Parry McCluer Middle School.