Give state Sen. Creigh Deeds credit for sticking to his convictions.
Mr. Deeds was one of only two lawmakers to vote for a campaign finance reform bill when it recently came up before a committee.
The bill would have ended campaign donations to lawmakers from public-service corporations like Dominion.
The objection to such donations is that customers have no choice but to do business with these public utilities, and therefore no choice in how a company translates customer payments into political lobbying. With other businesses, customers can just go elsewhere if they don’t like a company’s policies.
Additionally, some critics have argued that public utilities, which are semi-regulated by government, shouldn’t be lobbying government in any case.
These questions became more pertinent after the General Assembly passed a controversial bill in 2015 that temporarily relaxed regulations, preventing the State Corporation Commission from ordering refunds to customers if utilities earned more than an established base rate.
Lobbying likely played a large role in that decision. Hence, customers’ money, as passed along to utilities, was used to work against customers’ best interests by blocking rate refunds.
Sen. Bryce Reeves thanked the bill’s patron for bringing up these issues — but voted against the bill anyway.
Sen. Adam Ebbin of Alexandria was another nay vote. He said it wasn’t fair to pick on public service corporations: “I can’t support singling out one industry.”
But public service corporations already are singled out as a special category. That is why they are regulated by the SCC. Customers have to buy from them — just try going without electricity. Meanwhile, the companies operate as monopolies within their service areas; there is no competition and nowhere else for customers to turn (unless you’re the rare individual who can go totally off the grid). Monopolistic control gives the companies virtually all the power — which is precisely why the state imposes a level of regulation: Somebody has to protect consumers’ interests.
But when regulatory practices then are upended by the General Assembly … well, you can see why critics would be suspicious that lobbying money corrupted the established system.
Meanwhile, the utilities argued that freezing the base rate would provide budgetary stability, which in turn would allow them to better project the costs of expansion projects and then to plan financing for those projects. Among the expansion plans were several solar installations. The addition of solar and other projects was considered by those who approved the rate freeze as a fair reason for suspending the SCC’s review of consumer pricing.
The effort to reduce lobbying money in the political system is a noble one, but a hard fight. Lawmakers won’t easily give up access to a commodity that is vital to their own political futures.
This particular reform bill failed. But campaign finance reform remains a viable issue — increasingly so among voters disgusted with politics as usual. Stay tuned.