The ban on power cutoffs ends Oct. 5, as the General Assembly sorts out a long-term solution
RICHMOND-Time’s up. The State Corporation Commission delivered that message Thursday, rejecting a request to once again extend the moratorium on utility cutoffs. After seven months, the SCC said, it was time for the General Assembly to find a long-term solution.
Gov. Ralph Northam wrote to the SCC earlier in the day, asking for an extension through Dec. 1 or a reconvened General Assembly session, whichever happened first.
“The Virginia General Assembly is still in special session, so this request is intended to give the legislature the time they need to finish their work and address this issue,” Northam wrote.
In response, the SCC pointed out they warned state officials back in mid-September the current extension would be the last. From the beginning, the SCC’s position has been that constantly extending the moratorium doesn’t actually solve the problem. It just kicks the can down the road.
“This moratorium is not sustainable indefinitely,” SCC members wrote in their Sept. 15 letter to the governor. “The mounting costs of unpaid bills must eventually be paid, either by the customers in arrears or by other customers who themselves may be struggling to pay their bills. Unless the General Assembly explicitly directs that a utility’s own shareholders must bear the cost of unpaid bills, those costs will almost certainly be shifted to other paying customers.”
The SCC emphasized that last part in the September note. The group pointed out the General Assembly has been in special session since Aug. 18. Nearly two months should have been enough to develop a solution, they argued.
A Solution Soon Coming?
That long-term solution may happen as soon as next week. Both the House and Senate have approved a budget that tackles the problem, although it’s still a controversial solution. Earlier this year, the SCC found Dominion Energy had overcharged customers by $502.7 million from 2017 to 2019. The Senate by a 20-19 vote Thursday night passed a bill that would order Dominion to spend $74 million of that money to cover some unpaid utility bills. It’s roughly the same as the proposal that passed earlier this week in the House. Now to be clear, this is not a finished solution yet. As this is part of the budget discussion, the House and Senate will now select members to meet in conference and hammer out the differences.
The controversy comes in the amount Dominion has to pay. In September, Gov. Northam proposed requiring Dominion to pay $320 million. He also proposed forgiving all bills 60 days past due and covering the cost for those 90 days past due. General Assembly members hesitated to go along with that, which didn’t go unnoticed by state watchdogs.
“While Virginians should receive all $502.7 million that Dominion overcharged them, supporting the Governor’s solution was the clear right choice,” said Brennan Gilmore, executive director of Clean Virginia. “Return $320 million to Virginians through direct refunds and debt forgiveness, using just a portion of the half a billion that Dominion Energy already overcharged customers since 2017.”
Gilmore’s group monitors energy spending across the state. He said it’s not too late for the General Assembly to change their plan.
What If The Bills Don’t Pass?
If by some chance the utility payments don’t make it out of conference next week, that doesn’t mean the power will immediately be shut off. As a compromise, the SCC said they’ve issued orders for companies to work with customers.
“The Commission has ordered all jurisdictional utilities to continue to offer extended payment plans of up to 12 months,” SCC legal counsel John Dudley wrote in the response to Gov. Northam. “The Commission further directed that customers on such plans (or other good-faith repayment plans with the utility) shall not be charged late fees and shall not be disconnected. Thus, for these customers, the protections of the moratorium continue.”