By Stephen D. Haner January 19 The Washington Post
People of Virginia are owed $500 million in rebates from Dominion Power.
Stephen D. Haner, a lobbyist, is representing the Virginia Poverty Law Center for the 2018 General Assembly session.
On Monday, surprising no one, a Virginia Senate committee killed Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen’s proposal to restore the authority of the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) to review and adjust electricity rates. The Fairfax City Democrat had seen the same bill defeated the year before. In the year since, the state’s two major electricity providers operated again as unregulated monopolies.Under the regulatory schedule adopted in 2007, there should have been a major Dominion Energy rate case before the SCC in the fall. It would have been decided in November.Based on SCC data, the outcome of that case probably would have been either major customer bill credits, a reduction in the base rates or both, with the benefits reaching consumers in time to help with winter’s high bills. In September, SCC staff estimated that in 2016 alone Dominion’s profit exceeded its allowed return on equity by as much as $426 million.
Nobody watching in the committee room expected the committee to reverse its 2015 decision and give consumers a chance to get their money back. No, the surprising moment came earlier, when SCC Commissioner Judith Williams Jagdmann appeared before the same panel to seek its endorsement for a new term.Three senior members, including the majority and minority leaders, took time to lecture her about the primary legislative intent and to seek her assurance that if they pass a bill to continue the fleecing of Virginia consumers, and our new governor signs it, she would not impose her own judgment. “We hope the commission sees it our way,” said the committee chair, Republican Frank R. Wagner of Virginia Beach. “We are not going to be able to make it any clearer what the policy of the commonwealth is,” said Senate Democratic leader Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax.
A few days earlier, Jagdmann, a former attorney general and deputy attorney general of the state, made the same pro forma appearance before a House committee. In that meeting, questions about pending cases or pending bills were scrupulously avoided. That is the custom when interviewing judicial candidates. That custom was ignored in the Senate on Monday, and the contrast between the two meetings was striking. Saslaw and Wagner announced they would be carrying bills to deal with the excess profits the utilities have earned since Wagner’s 2015 legislation suspended regulation and to fulfill the utilities’ hopes of holding on to future excess profits. Their bills, they intimated, would shepherd in a Golden Age of Electricity Nirvana. Jagdmann was told in no uncertain terms not to mess with them if disputed in a future case, and her colleague Commissioner Mark Christie was present to hear the same exhortation.
Dominion has called this period a rate freeze, but really it has enjoyed a regulatory holiday. In a conversation more than a decade ago, I first heard a theme from Dominion that was echoed Monday by Saslaw and Wagner. Dominion’s leaders were complaining bitterly about the regulatory oversight of the SCC. I think they expected sympathy from me on that day in 2006 because at the time I worked for a major defense contractor that is also a heavily regulated monopoly subject to daily oversight.I had zero sympathy for and full understanding of what Dominion really wanted and still wants. Imagine if a major defense contractor went to Congress and received special permission to ignore the Defense Contract Audit Agency for seven years, to prevent any challenge to the contractor’s spending decisions and to prevent any refunds of overpayments. That is a fair analogy to the situation the utilities enjoy in Virginia — and may be seeking to extend.
Over the years since that 2006 discussion, there have been several times when the underlying theme of a utility proposal was to place handcuffs on the SCC, culminating in the 2015 bill ending regulation. The assembly usually complied.The preemptive attack on any potential show of independence by the commission launched by Saslaw and Wagner on Monday must be viewed as the first of what will be many brushback pitches in the game just beginning. The outcome Virginia consumers should be hoping for is a return to full SCC authority and an almost immediate rate case to review the earnings during the recent regulatory holiday. It does not sound as though that is the plan the leading senators have in mind.