It’s one of the most duplicitous arrangements in Virginia politics, and open government activists have been fighting it for years – without success. It’s Virginia’s built-in political campaign contribution machine and probably represents one of the most egregious conflicts of interest, at least in the utility business, in the country.
I am referring to Dominion Energy. The “power company” supplies electricity to 7 million households and businesses in Virginia. Dominion is big. It goes way beyond Virginia. But here in the Old Dominion the utility has an amazingly cozy relationship with state lawmakers – one that’s been going on for almost 75 years.
It’s not illegal. But it should be. At the very least it smells bad, does a serious disservice to the citizens of Virginia and violates every tenet of good government. The way it works is that the State Corporation Commission sets the electricity rates to assure the power company achieves a certain profit margin.
In 2019, Dominion asked the SCC for a profit margin of over 10%. They didn’t get it. But they’ll be back later this year asking for it again. Wouldn’t you like to have a business with a captive customer base where there is no competition to speak of – and in which the government guarantees you a generous profit?
Sounds like something out of some Eastern European autocratic regime. The power company sways the politicians with contributions, and then the electricity providers get away with charging whatever they want. Oh, wait, this isn’t some former Soviet satellite country, this is Virginia.
My source for campaign contribution data is the Virginia Political Access Project, a reliable nonprofit that keeps tabs on political contributions.
A case in point. Going into the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, Del. Hala Ayala made a move that impressed me: She promised not to accept money from Dominion. That took guts.
However, seeing the nomination within her grasp, but a little shy on cash, she flip-flopped and accepted $100,000 from Dominion. She is now the Democratic nominee. She said all she did was change her mind. That’s fine, but it demonstrates how much sway Dominion’s checkbook can have in Virginia politics.
Ayala’s isn’t the only candidate accepting money from Dominion. She has plenty of role models. Dozens of delegates and state senators take their money. State Sen. Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), arguably the most powerful man in the Senate, cheerfully takes Dominion’s money – and has gone out of his way to kill any reform legislation that would take Dominion out of the business of giving political donations. In Saslaw’s last election, he received $82,500 from Dominion.
Dominion – and this is important – doesn’t care what party you’re in, just where you sit in the power structure. They want someone to always be there to lend a sympathetic ear, whether the issue concerns profit margins, bending a regulation or skirting an environmental rule.
State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), a Democrat and chair of the Finance and Appropriations Committee, received $14,500 from Dominion during her last re-election bid, in 2019. But she wasn’t alone; two other Democratic members of the committee received $10,000 each. Republicans like to get in on the act, too. It’s a remarkably non-partisan trough. State Sen. Tommy Norment, a Republican and a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee Howell chairs, received $30,000 from Dominion when he last ran two years ago.
The candidates for governor are a little harder to sort out. Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe took $220,000 in Dominion money in 2013, the last time he ran and won, but said he isn’t taking any of the utility’s money this year. As for the GOP candidate, Glenn Youngkin, a newbie to state politics and a candidate with considerable personal resources, it’s unlikely he’ll take any of their money either.
The Dominion connection is one of those distasteful relationships in Virginia politics and it’s rarely discussed – our dirty little secret you might say. However, this is serious business. It must be discussed. It involves billions of dollars, the activities of a major U.S. corporation and an abuse of our campaign finance laws.
What some people forget is that this isn’t just a regulated company like any other corporate entity. Virginia has unique authority over Dominion. Virginia sets its rates – what you and I pay for electricity – guarantees its high profit margins, approves refunds, and, oh, yes, sets and approves the unique environmental rules that affect power companies.
Now really, ask yourself, should Dominion be allowed to contribute to legislators and candidates who have such direct control over them? Your answer, I pray, is “no.” This has to stop, and one of the best ways to do this is to make it a campaign issue in 2021.
David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.