Virginia’s General Assembly released amendments to its proposed biennial state budget on Friday that would let Dominion Energy off the hook from a previous proposal, which would have required the utility to draw from hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits as the source of money to forgive the debt that some of its customers have accrued amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

If the amendments pass, Dominion will still be required to forgive a large pool of its electric customers’ debt, but the changes are crucial in determining who will pay for it. An earlier proposal from Governor Ralph Northam would have required Dominion to draw from the $320 million of excess profits it has taken from customers in recent years to finance the debt forgiveness. Instead, under the House and Senate versions, Dominion could effectively pass the costs of the forgiven ratepayer debts back on to its customers in future years, by reducing the amount of refunds those customers could receive as a consequence of the utility’s rate case next year, or potentially by seeking a “rate adjustment clause (RAC)” rider.

Members of the House of Delegates and Senate appropriations bodies, which put forth the updated language, have received approximately $2.5 million from Dominion and its employees in campaign contributions throughout their careers, including more than $580,000 from Dominion Energy between 2019 and 2020.

The amended Senate version of the budget would require the utility to forgive the debts for customers who have fallen more than 30 days behind on their electric bills as of September 30. The amended House version would require Dominion to forgive the debts of only customers who have fallen more than 60 days behind on their electric bills as of August 31 – an estimated $74 million in relief, per a letter to legislators from the state’s Attorney General.

According to a letter from Virginia’s State Corporation (SCC) Commission to legislators, Dominion customers were nearly $117 million behind on their bills as of June 30, as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to create economic hardship. Race- and income-specific data are not available for the arrearages in Virginia, but national surveys have shown that Black and Hispanic households were far likelier to be unable to pay an electric bill during this summer than white households. Virginia experienced its hottest July on record this summer.

An SCC report found last month that Dominion had overcharged customers by more than $500 million above its authorized level of return between 2017 and 2019. During that time, Dominion paid its top executives more than $85 million

The budget provisions would replace an expiring SCC moratorium on utility disconnections, extending that relief until 60 days after the end of Virginia’s state of emergency, or “until the Governor determines that the economic and public health conditions have improved.” They would also require utilities to provide customers in arrears with six- to 24-month repayment plans – a digression from the twelve-month provision approved by the Senate earlier this month.

The SCC moratorium, which it extended to allow the General Assembly time to address the looming shutoffs, will expire on October 5. Each chamber is expected to vote on its version of the budget beforehand, followed by a reconciliation process to resolve differences between the two bills. (Under Virginia law, the budget will take effect “from its passage.”)

Dominion has contributed over $2M to Virginia legislators on Appropriations Committees

Members of the Virginia state Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee have accepted more than $1.3 million in contributions from Dominion Energy, according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP). On the House side, Appropriations Committee members have accepted over $825,000. Dominion made nearly one third of those contributions on the Senate side, and one quarter on the House side, in the last two years. 

On top of those corporate contributions, contributions from Dominion employees – including CEO Tom Farrell and others in company leadership – to House and Senate Appropriations Committee members amounted to approximately $345,000. The utility’s campaign finance “bundling” strategy – in which a candidate or committee receives both Dominion corporate contributions and others from utility-affiliated individuals, often within a short period of time or even on the same day – was first exposed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2017.

The leadership of both chambers’ Appropriations Committees has accepted significant sums from Dominion. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Torian (D-52) has accepted $77,250 in Dominion contributions, $61,000 of which he took in between 2019 and 2020. Dominion is Torian’s second-highest overall contributor, according to VPAP data. 

On the Senate side, Finance and Appropriations Committee Chair Janet Howell (D-32) has accepted $66,750 in Dominion contributions, plus an additional $19,825 in contributions from Dominion employees. Dominion is Howell’s third-highest overall contributor, according to VPAP data.

Dominion was the top overall contributor to six other House and Senate Appropriations Committee members, according to VPAP data. In the House, these include Former Speaker of the House of Delegates Kirk Cox* (R-66), as well as Delegates Ken Plum (D-36) and Delores McQuinn (D-70). Cox has accepted a chart-topping $376,777 in Dominion money, including more than $100,000 in 2019, an election year in which he held his seat by a narrow margin. (Plum has not received Dominion money since 2017.)

In the Senate committee, Dominion was the top overall contributor to Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-35), Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas (D-18), and Senator Mamie Locke (D-2), according to VPAP data. Saslaw, who has earned the moniker “Dominion Dick” from his critics, has accepted over $436,000 from the utility, plus approximately an additional $47,000 from Dominion employees. Saslaw, Lucas, and Locke have all received large sums from Dominion in the past two years alone: $85,000, $82,500, and $62,500, respectively. 

Virginia’s lax campaign finance laws permit candidates to pilfer campaign funds for personal use, rendering Dominion and its employees’ contributions to friendly lawmakers virtually unrestricted. 

Only one member of either Appropriations Committee – Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25) – has signed a pledge to refuse contributions from Dominion originated by Activate Virginia, an activist group seeking to make Virginia politics more democratic and to elect Democrats. Others “have taken a principled stance against accepting campaign contributions” from Dominion, its executives, and lobbyists, according to a list maintained by Clean Virginia, a group that opposes utility monopoly corruption in the state’s politics.

* Excluding “contributions” to Cox from his own candidate committee, “Cox for Delegate”, which VPAP codes as his top overall contributor.

Update (9/29 at 5:25pm ET): This post has been modified to add a debt relief estimate for the House budget amendment, as well as information on Clean Virginia’s list of legislators who report rejecting Dominion contributions.

“Virginia State Capitol Building” by Sky Noir is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Posted by Kelly Roache

Kelly Roache is a research and communications specialist at the Energy and Policy Institute.