Utilities Can Still Donate: Virginia Lawmakers Reject Contribution Ban

By Brian Carlton

January 20, 2021

Dominion, Verizon and others can still contribute to political campaigns, with no limit.

RICHMOND-For the third straight year, Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen came before the Senate Elections Committee, trying to get his bill passed. And for the third straight year, it died in a committee vote. 

Peterson’s bill, SB 1236, takes public utilities out of politics. Specifically, it bans public utilities like Dominion from contributing to any candidates, campaign committees or political committees. Bills like this struggle to even get through a committee, due to the issue Petersen raised. 

Virginia power companies go through a review of their base rates every two years. Companies are limited on the amount of profit they can make, in order to prevent price gouging. For Appalachian Power, that rate of return is 9.7%. For Dominion, it comes in at 10.7%. But in 2015, the Assembly passed a rate freeze. 

That meant for three years, Dominion agreed to keep the same rate. In return, state officials canceled rate reviews, so state officials couldn’t check to see if the rates were within the designated limits. Also, the two companies still increased other fees, through a process known as adding riders.

“The rate freeze was initially justified by President Obama’s clean power plan,” Petersen told the Elections Committee Tuesday. “But when President Trump took office, we kept the rate freeze in place. Based on that, I came to the realization that money in politics was perhaps making a difference and making a difference that was not correct.”

In 2020, the State Corporation Commission found Dominion overcharged customers by $502 million from 2017 to 2019. In last fall’s special session, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed making Dominion repay that money. That would help residents struggling to pay bills during the pandemic. The General Assembly refused the idea. 

RELATED: Does Virginia’s Latest Campaign Finance Bill Go Far Enough?

Dominion Over All Virginia

According to data from the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion contributed $1.329 million to races across the state from 2020 to 2021. That makes it the top political donor in the entire state. Political reform group Unite America comes in a very distant second at $1.177 million. You can find the complete list of donors at VPAP right here

On Tuesday, the Elections Committee voted 10-5 against Petersen’s bill. Interesting enough, all but one of the people who voted against the bill received contributions from Dominion Energy within the last year. They include: 

  • Bryce Reeves-$5,000 in 2020
  • Frank Ruff-$10,000 in 2020
  • Janet Howell-$15,000 in 2020
  • Jill Vogel-$5,000 in 2020
  • Lionell Spruill Sr. -$70,000 from 2020 to 2021
  • Monty Mason-$10,000 in 2020
  • Scott Surovell-$15,000 in 2020
  • Siobhan Dunnavant-$5,000 in 2020
  • Ryan McDougle-$20,000 in 2020

Out of those who opposed the bill, only Republican Mark Peake has not taken money from Dominion. During Tuesday’s hearing, members of the public questioned why a company could donate to the very people deciding its future. 

“We feel there’s an inherent conflict of interest to let these companies that are regulated by the government make such large contributions,” said David Kuebrich, a member of the NoVa Climate Coalition. “We believe when that type of money is let into the system, the system has the appearance of being rigged.” 

Registered nurse Emily Little echoed Kuebrich’s comments.

“Dominion Energy is a group that’s overcharging our ratepayers,” Little said. “And the people they’re overcharging are single mothers, soccer coaches, people with coronavirus, people in nursing homes. The idea they can give money to the people that regulate their rates is insane to me.” 

Dominion Feels Singled Out

Chris Nolen from Richmond-based McGuire Woods was on hand to represent Dominion. He told the senators his clients feel targeted. 

“This bill continues to single out one type of corporation and treat it differently by banning a type of political speech,” Nolen said. “[It] goes well beyond addressing the concerns of the patron or what you heard today. It applies to subsidiaries, it also applies to holding companies. It also prohibits contributions to any candidate. The majority of companies that have issues before this General Assembly are not included in this bill.” 

Ron Jefferson of Appalachian Power and Erik Ryson, director of public policy for the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, both echoed Nolen’s comments.

With little debate, senators rejected the bill. Some members questioned if it went too far by banning companies from donating to any race.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].

CATEGORIES: Uncategorized


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