Category Archives: Money in politics

Another Lesson in Virginia Political Corruption

by D.J. Rippert

Say governor, is that a Rolex you’re wearing? On Sept 4, 2014 former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was found guilty of 11 counts of corruption. While the US Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction Chief Justice John G Roberts correctly described the former governor’s actions as “tawdry.” Back in Virginia, Governor McAuliffe formed an ethics panel to make recommendations and at least one law was passed limiting gifts from lobbyists to state politicians to $100 per year. Case closed, problem solved … right? Of course not! This is the Commonwealth of Corruption. The greased eels of the General Assembly aren’t going to let a little thing like a law “unline” their pockets.

Out of the office. One constant complaint by General Assembly members is how poorly they’re paid. They make about $18,000 per year. On an annual basis that’s pretty low. On a “units of value created” basis it’s astronomical given how little they accomplish to benefit the citizens of Virginia. Either way, they also get a $15,000 allowance for “office expenses.” That’s a lot of Bic pens. In fact, it’s income. Former Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling wanted to reclassify the money as income. “It’s not that they would make more money, but we would actually be transparent about the money they were making,” said Bolling. “Let’s call it what it is: It’s income.” No wonder he’s no longer active in Virginia politics!

Buddy, can you spare a dime, or $100,000? The $100 gift limit has several minor exceptions and one major exception. The major exception relates to “personal friends.”  The exception for personal friends is nebulous.  Moreover, who do politicians have as friends? CEOs? Union leaders? Why should a sitting politician be able to take a material gift from anyone outside his or her family?  Perform this mental test – when was the last time somebody from outside your family gave you a gift worth more than $1,000? For most people that never happens but apparently this happens a lot to our politicians. I wonder why “friends” give politicians lavish gifts?

There’s a little something in this envelope for you. Two years ago, long after the McDonnell affair, the Virginian-Pilot published an article entitled, “Lawmakers live large on campaign cash, the Virginia Way.” One would assume that the money donated by fun groups like Dominion Resources and Omega Protein as campaign contributions would be used to pay campaign expenses. In the Commonwealth of Corruption that would be a very bad assumption. Here’s what the Virginian-Pilot has to say about one of our upstanding legislators:

“An Associated Press review of the state’s finance system turned up examples like Chesapeake Democrat Del. Lionell Spruill, who hasn’t faced an opponent in two decades.

Since 2011, Spruill has spent $300,000 from his campaign account on numerous luxuries: a membership in a private business club, meals at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses around the country, and more than $2,000 at high-end Richmond restaurants during legislative sessions. More than 90 percent of the money Spruill raised came from corporations, trade organizations or special interest groups.

Spruill, who has not listed an outside income in years, declined to comment.”

The Associated Press analysis went on to note:

“Behavior that would get lawmakers locked up in other states or at the federal level is perfectly fine in the Old Dominion. Virginia is the only state where lawmakers can raise unlimited campaign donations from anyone, including corporations and unions, and spend the money on themselves.”

“A handful of lawmakers, including senior members in both parties, rely almost entirely on business interests and their representatives for campaign contributions. For instance, GOP Senate President Pro Tem Steve Newman has raised more than $360,000 since 2012; 99 percent of that money came from corporations, trade groups, lobbying firms or special interest groups.”

“The current system has little accountability. Lawmakers must disclose their spending but are free to do so in the vaguest details. Some lawmakers reimburse themselves thousands of dollars from their campaigns with only scant explanation, like “travel reimbursement.” Further, Virginia’s State Board of Elections does not audit or investigate campaign finance reports. Elected prosecutors can investigate campaign finance violations, but longtime political watchers could not recall a case ever being brought.”

The Virginia Way. Even those who hold our General Assembly in the lowest possible regard must find this shocking. Despite a national embarrassment over Governor Rolex’s activities four years ago the clowns in The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (a wholly owned subsidy of Dominion Resources and Omega Protein) can solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars in “campaign contributions” which are not needed for campaigns and spend that money on pretty much anything with absolute impunity. Virginia, the most corrupt state in America.

Insufferable Self-Righteousness

Michael Bills, a former Goldman Sachs executive and chief investment officer of the University of Virginia, is so outraged by what he calls the “legalized corruption” of Dominion Energy’s outsized campaign contributions that he says he’ll donate thousands of dollars to legislators who pledge not to accept money from the power company and to divest any personal investments in the company.

The Clean Virginia Project will offer $5,000 per election cycle to participating delegates and $20,000 per cycle to senators, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Democrats and Republicans should represent their constituents and not powerful corporate interests, and Clean Virginia will be holding them accountable if they don’t,” Bills said in a prepared statement.

That’s really rich coming from a guy who made $1,344,500 in Virginia political contributions in 2017 — compared to $913,646 for Dominion.

Puh-leeease. If Bills and his buddies in the Charlottesville gentry want to criticize the legislation working its way through the General Assembly, I’m fine with that. There are a lot of pros and cons to most recent version of the bill that would rewrite the process for regulating electric utilities in Virginia. Does it lock in utility profits at an unacceptably high level? Does it undermine the State Corporation Commission’s powers of regulatory oversight? What form should electric grid modernization take? Those are all legitimate questions that would benefit from a robust public discourse.

But when it comes to criticizing Dominion for contribution to political campaigns, Bills sounds like the pot calling the kettle black. Spare me the insufferable self-righteousness.

When “Dominion” makes political contributions, the money isn’t coming from rate payers or even shareholders. The money is collected from Dominion executives and employees. If I understand the mechanics correctly, the Dominion political action committee aggregates the donations of individual employees, some of whom are wealthy executives and some of whom are every-day employees. Somehow, we’re expected to believe that Bills’ donating more than a million dollars from his massive personal wealth is less “corrupt” than hundreds of Dominion employees pooling their smaller donations.

Last year, Bills donated $416,000 to the Northam for Governor campaign. Dominion donated $50,000 — which it offset by donating $55,000 to the Gillespie campaign. If money corrupts the political process, one would think that Bills sank his talons far deeper into Northam than Dominion did. Yet Northam helped work out the legislative compromise with Dominion that Bills’ friends at the Clean Virginia Project find so objectionable. What happened? Is Bills upset that he bought Northam but he didn’t stay bought?

Clearly, money talks. If it didn’t, special interests wouldn’t dole out so much of it. But it’s not so clear that money buys much more than access — the right to be heard– as opposed to a politician’s undying fealty.

The irony is that in the past year or two, Charlottesville’s landed gentry has emerged as a much bigger source of political contributions than Dominion could dream of becoming. Just look at all the money donated to left-wing populist Tom Perriello last year. At least the Dominion PAC represents the interests of thousands of employees around the state. Who does Bills represent other than himself?

Bacon Bits: Campaign Contributions, Bronze Parachutes, and Bus Subsidies

Herewith some follow-ups on stories we’ve been tracking on Bacon’s Rebellion:

Election fallout for electric utilities: Tuesday’s election wasn’t just a rout for Republicans. The General Assembly will be a more hostile place for Virginia’s electric utilities as well. As Robert Zullo with the Richmond Times-Dispatch points out: “Thirteen candidates who signed a pledge refusing to accept campaign cash from Virginia’s two big utilities won seats in the House of Delegates Tuesday. Seven of those support prohibiting Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power from making political donations.”

Bronze parachute for Virginia Tech provost. Former Virginia Tech Provost Thanassis Rikakis, whose resignation was announced last month, is on paid administrative leave through the end of the year and will continue to receive his $414,000 salary through Aug. 10, 2018. Rikakis, who riled up faculty for reasons that still remain obscure to me, apparently will be allowed to take on a new job as a direct report to President Timothy Sands, earning a mere $275,000 a year as “presidential fellow for academic innovation.” The Roanoke Times reports that he will continue to work on initiatives he had launched as provost, such as “Beyond Boundaries, Destination Areas, the PIBB budget model, the Honors College and the Health Science and Technology campus concepts.”

The bus route to nowhere? The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) is subsidizing a Megabus bus service between Blacksburg and Washington, D.C., with stops in Christiansburg, Lexington, Staunton, Harrisonburg, Front Royal, Washington Dulles International Airport and Arlington. Riders boarding in Blacksburg for the full ride will pay $50. According to a 2013 study, reports the Roanoke Times, the route could generate 15,550 riders per year, generate $578,000 in revenue, and run a $417,000 deficit. Virginia receive about $15 million a year in federal funding for rural transportation projects, and is required to set aside $2.3 million for intercity bus service.

“The Virginia Breeze improves mobility choices for underserved communities by offering an alternative to driving along the congested Interstate 81 and 66 corridors, which need travel options,” DRPT Director Jennifer Mitchell said. “Intercity bus travel gets people out of cars and where they want to go affordably, comfortably and reliably.”

Roanoke, Shenandoah Valley, Southwest, and the 23229 Zip Code Keeping Gillespie in the Race

Graphic credit: Virginia Public Access Project

According to Virginia Public Access Project data, Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam has raised 50% more money than Republican Ed Gillespie — and almost 30 times more than Libertarian Cliff Hyra. The map above shows the distribution of in-state dollars by region. (Drill down by region and you can see the contribution count broken down by zip code.) The in-state contributions are a better reflection of Virginia voter sentiment than money totals that include out-of-state dough.

As is readily visible from the map, the east-west divide is pronounced. The Roanoke region, Southwest Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley lean to Gillespie. The rest of the state leans to Northam. Look at the data by zip code, though, and the picture is less uniform. Here’s a map of the Richmond region.

I was surprised to see how dominant Northam is in the Richmond region, which has a reputation — decreasingly deserved with each election — of leaning Republican and conservative. But the map is somewhat deceptive. I checked out my zip code, 23229 (seen in the yellow circle), in western Henrico County. Not only is 23229 one of the biggest-donating zips in the state, it leans to Gillespie by a nine-to-one margin.

Inhabitants of my zip chipped in $1,260,000 to the Gillespie campaign, versus $125,000 for Northam. That’s one-quarter of Gillespie’s entire in-state campaign take — and more than that vast swath of red west of the Blue Ridge. Remarkably, as far as I know, Gillespie has never visited the district (unless he appeared at discrete fund-raisers in private homes). He’d be well advised to come and shake that money tree as hard as he can.

Update: And how many votes will these campaign expenditures buy? Well, it depends on how much the campaigns devote to advertising. And the effect of advertising is just about zero. Literally, zero. From am upcoming publication in the American Political Science Review by Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman. “We argue that the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero. … A systematic meta-analysis of 40 field experiments estimates an average effect of zero in general elections.”

Do Utilities and Coal Companies Run Virginia? Hardly.

Statue of Gov. Harry F. Byrd outside the Virginia state capitol building. A “traditionalistic” political culture? Maybe once upon a time, but not anymore.

Vivian Thomson argues that utilities and coal companies dominate Virginia’s energy policy. Her simplistic view ignores the reality that environmentalists wield significant power now.

Vivian E. Thomson has a big beef with state government. The University of Virginia environmental sciences professor contends that the political system in the Old Dominion is rigged in favor of the electric utilities and fossil fuel industries against selfless crusaders, such as herself, fighting for the public interest. She persists in this belief even though the State Air Pollution Control Board, of which she was a member in the early 2000s, prevailed in the two major controversies she describes in her book, “Climate Capitulation: An Insider’s Account of State Power in a Coal Nation.”

In that book, she lists three factors that allow “entrenched business elites” to exercise “undue power” in the making of air pollution policy through legislative and administrative processes:

(1) campaign contributions that, in the energy and natural resources sector, are dominated by one electric utility and coal interests, (2) a reactive, part-time legislature that has virtually no independent analytical capacity, and (3) a traditionalistic political culture.

Thomson’s view of Virginia’s political economy is widely shared among environmentalists and left-of-center activists and politicians. A friend of mine, a professor of environmental law whose opinion I respect, gave the book fulsome praise. Accordingly, Thomson’s thesis deserves a thoughtful response, and that’s what I will endeavor to provide in this post.

Although Thomson provides nuggets of genuine insight, her analysis of Virginia’s political economy is as one-sided as her chronicle of the regulatory controversies in which she was embroiled. (See my critique of her book in “Rogue Board“). She focuses exclusively on how corporations exercise power and influence in Virginia while ignoring the increasing clout of its opponents, who have won numerous victories in the realm of politics, public opinion and the law. Yes, corporations have clout. But so do their foes. Sometimes Big Business gets its way. Often, it doesn’t.

I will start by addressing Thomson’s comments about the part-time legislature, which have considerable merit, move to the meaningless characterization of Virginia as having a “traditionalist” political culture, and close with a discussion of the role of campaign contributions in Virginia politics.

Asymmetry of information. The disparity in political power issues not just from business campaign donations, Thomson argues, but from an asymmetry in information. Virginia has a part-time citizen legislature, and legislators have tiny staffs. As a practical matter, senators and delegates in the General Assembly are reliant upon the expertise of state employees and outsiders such as lobbyists.

Writes Thomson:

Virginia’s legislature is designed to be a part-time body, with the notion that citizens serving as representatives can remain closely attuned to their constituents’ needs and preferences. … [But] even the most dedicated legislators cannot be independently well informed if they have small staffs, low pay, and short sessions.

Less professionalized legislatures are handicapped when it comes to analysis of complicated technical issues such as those commonly encountered in the environmental and public-health policy arenas. When Virginia’s legislators need information they turn to lobbyists or to the executive branch. Companies take advantage of their ongoing relationships with state civil servants and lawmakers to get deals that favor their interests. Large companies are especially well positioned to push for light-handed regulation, since they can expend considerable resources on attorneys and consultants to fight limits they do not like. …

In the environmental policy arena, power flows to those who can collect and interpret complicated scientific, legal, and economic information. The question is, who will provide legislators that information and how will we know who those sources are?

Thomson makes a valid point. Part-time legislators cannot possibly master the infinite complexities of topics as varied as health care, transportation, state-local governance, fiscal issues, K-12 education, higher education, energy and the environment. As a consequence, Virginia lawmakers do rely heavily upon the expertise offered by state employees and lobbyists, many of whom have long memories and deep knowledge, not only of the pros and cons of issues, but of the long legislative and regulatory histories behind the controversies.

She errs, however, in supposing that only corporations and industry groups play the game. The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP) database lists 72 organizations employing lobbyists on issues relating to “energy.” Dominion Energy. with five lobbyists, had one of the largest profiles in the General Assembly. But, then, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) also listed five lobbyists.

Perusing the VPAP database, I identified seven other environmental organizations with registered lobbyists addressing energy issues: Appalachian Voices, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Nature Conservancy, the Piedmont Environmental Council, the Sierra Club-Virginia Chapter, the Virginia Conservation Network, and the Virginia League of Conservation Voters.

They were way outnumbered by business lobbyists, but the business lobbyists were a fractured group. The largest number by far represented businesses with an interest in alternate energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, nuclear) or energy efficiency. A significant number represented industrial consumers of energy. Depending on the issue, any of these interest groups might align themselves with the electric utilities one day or the environmentalists the next. 

The impression one gets from studying the list is that the legislature is open to a cacophony of voices on energy issues which no single company, trade association or environmental group could possibly dominate. No one has a monopoly on information. Continue reading

Campaign Contributions and Selective Indignation

Steve Nash, author of “Virginia Climate Fever,” is on a crusade against Dominion Energy, electric utilities, the coal industry and other corporate special interests that donate vast sums of money to Virginia politicians. He has been submitting op-eds to newspapers around the state taking Dominion and Appalachian Power to task for their outsized campaign contributions.

Writing most recently in the (Lynchburg) News & Advance, Steve asks:

So whether you’re conservative, green, libertarian or liberal, here’s the question: Can your legislator explain why it’s OK to accept “donations” from the two power companies and still cast votes on legislation that affects not only their profits, but also our electric bills and, crucially, our environment? For that matter, why is it legitimate to take money from any corporate interests who also have legislative needs that should not pre-empt the public interest?

Now, Steve is a very close friend of mine, and we debate issues like this with regularity. One of the things that I love about Steve is that, although he is tenacious in his beliefs, he does make an effort to understand the other side of the argument. He engages in reasoned, gentlemanly discussion rather than resorting to change-the-subject evasions and ad hominem attacks. I will endeavor to engage Steve’s arguments in the same generous spirit.

It is an article of faith on the left that the coal and electric-power industries, and Dominion most of all, are fending off worthy environmentalist legislation by buying legislators’ loyalties. Dominion, as Steve points out, has given more than $7.4 million to legislators of both parties since 2016 — $826,000 in 2016-17 alone. The company is Virginia’s top donor. And it doesn’t hand out the money in a spirit of charity and good will. Like everyone else, Dominion gives money because it hopes to get something in return — access, if not legislators’ votes.

As Steve writes:

Public servants who take Dominion’s and Appalachian’s money have voted on countless power-utility-related bills, listened to the pitches of the sturdy corps of power company lobbyists, and then handed those companies a lengthening series of legislative home runs worth hundreds of millions of dollars — perhaps a billion or two by some estimates. And they routinely vote on legislation affecting the bankers, realtors, beer wholesalers, the health industry and their other benefactors.

Please note that Steve seems to have no problem with environmental interests donating large sums of money. As the Staunton News Leader observed recently, the top three environmental campaign donors, the League of Conservation Voters, NextGen Climate Action, and the Sierra Club have shelled out $5.0 million to individual statewide candidates over the past decade, compared to Dominion’s $3.3 million. (The comparison is not entirely fair because it doesn’t include other utility and fossil fuel interests. But the article makes the point that environmentalists aren’t slouches when it comes to throwing around big money.)

Steve and other environmentalists frequently note that Dominion donated $75,000 to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s 2014 gubernatorial campaign, not including thousands more from individual Dominion executives. Although I don’t recall Steve making the connection, others have suggested that such campaign booty explains the governor’s support for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline, of which Dominion is the managing partner.

But the critics of utility donations never acknowledge that NextGen Climate Action, founded by California hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer, donated more than $1.6 million to McAuliffe! Another $1.7 million came from the League of Conservation Voters, and nearly $470,000 from the Sierra Club. Nor do the critics ever observe that, as a reward to his environmental supporters, McAuliffe appointed Angela Navarro, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, as deputy secretary of Natural Resources.

When was the last time a Dominion Energy executive was appointed to a senior administrative post?

Steve holds up as exemplars more than five dozen House of Delegates candidates who have signed a pledge to refuse to accept campaign cash from either Dominion or Apco. These are mostly Democrats, but Steve argues that conservatives should join the movement, too. After all, big money in politics encourages big government.

As a libertarian, I agree that big money and big government are intertwined.  And as a libertarian, I have no problem with candidates voluntarily turning down corporate money — as opposed to restricting the right of corporations to offer the money. But as best I can tell, Tom Steyer, the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club are not calling for less government. They just want to utilize the power of state government to different ends.

The difference between the electric utilities and the environmentalists, Steve implies in the quote above, is that the utilities are lobbying for their own private interests while environmentalists are pushing for the “public interest.”

It’s fair to say that environmentalists believe they are working for the public interest. But they’re working for their definition of the public interest. Their’s is not necessarily the same definition that, say, coal miners in Southwest Virginia would adopt. Or that economic developers in natural gas-constrained Hampton Roads would use. Or that electric rate payers would use. Or that businesses and homeowners counting on the reliability of the electric grid would use.

Environmentalists are a special interest lobby just like Dominion, Apco and the coal companies. That doesn’t make them evil; it doesn’t even make them wrong. Indeed, I’m happy to entertain the idea that in many instances, they are right. But it is romantic nonsense to insist that environmentalists dwell in some higher ethical plane and that their goals are any more pure than anyone else’s.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Dominion, Apco, the coal industry, Tom Steyer, the Sierra Club, and every other corporate or special interest group under the sun didn’t believe that money didn’t buy them access, they wouldn’t give the money. Clearly, money does influence the public policy process. But so does the media. So do grass roots organizing efforts. So do lawsuits. And, believe it or not, so do the actual merits of the case.

Thanks to the Virginia Public Access Project, it’s easy to follow campaign money. However, a large fraction of the cash dedicated to influencing public policy is invisible. We can’t track how much different groups are spending on public relations and influencing the press. We can’t track how much money is spent on research, organizing demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and other grass-roots activities. We can’t track how much money is spent on filing lawsuits and pressuring regulators.

Wouldn’t it be great if the electric utilities and environmental groups alike revealed how much they spent on such efforts? I’m not holding my breath. Most groups hew to the ethic of “Transparency for thee, but not for me.” Until such time as we know the bigger picture, I’m not inclined to make a big deal about disparities in one channel — campaign contributions — for influencing the political process.

Update: I just came across a 2014 Mother Jones article that said Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action spent $8 million “to keep Republican Ken Cuccinelli out of the state’s top office.” So, Steyer spent more money in one year than Dominion donated in ten.

Ralph Northam’s Plan to Empower Virginia’s Political Class

Under pressure from his rival for accepting money from Dominion, Democratic Party candidate for governor Ralph Northam has called for a cap on campaign donations and a ban on corporate contributions.

“Virginia’s campaign finance system is a boondoggle that alienates its citizens and makes them lose faith in government,” Northam said in a statement. “Virginians across every part of the political spectrum want a system that is more responsive to the people, and less reliant on big checks from a few donors.”

Reports the Washington Post:

Northam’s plan would limit donations to $10,000 (with political parties excluded), bar businesses and corporations from giving and require nonprofits trying to influence Virginia elections to reveal their donors.

Hmmm. Interesting plan. Let’s see how it would work out in the 2017 gubernatorial race.

Based on campaign contributions reported so far on the Virginia Public Access Project website, the $10,000 cap on donations would hurt Northam but cripple his opponent Tom Perriello. Northam would lose $832,000 from the capped donations while his radical chic opponent, reliant upon a handful of well-heeled donors, would lose $1,243,000. The ban on business contributions would harm Northam to the tune of $220,000 while not touching Perriello at all — not one business entity was reported to have contributed to him — but the sums of money contributed by business are trivial compared to those donated by individuals. (For purposes of this analysis, I counted only business donations of $1,000 or more.)

If Northam’s plan had been enacted in this election cycle, it would have effectively knee-capped his opponent for the Democratic Party nomination. As the party-establishment candidate, Northam would have surged from a two-to-one fund-raising advantage over Perriello to a more than four-to-one advantage.

Of course, if Northam’s campaign-finance plan were enacted, it would apply to future elections, not this one, so no one can accuse him of designing it with the idea of taking out Perriello. But the numbers show how campaign reform proposals potentially can have an anti-democratic effect. Personally, I have no use for Perriello or his leftist brand of populism. I believe that Perriello would be a disaster as governor. But I do believe he injects a healthy competition into the democratic process.

Virginia’s political process is dominated by a two-party oligarchy which has erected all manner of rules to maintain the status quo. Northam’s plan would stifle the democratic impulse even more by making it even more difficult for outsider candidates to make a credible run at office.

Yeah, Virginia’s system of unlimited campaign contributions sucks. It gives rich people far more influence over the electoral outcome than ordinary Virginians. But is the alternative any better — bequeathing the advantage to those who rise up through the political machinery of the two-party duopoly and freezing out outsiders? The only way a third party — a Libertarian Party or a Green Party — stands a chance to make a successful run in Virginia is if an insurgent can persuade a handful of deep-pocketed sponsors to underwrite his or her campaign.

You can count on the two-party duopolists re-writing campaign donation laws to benefit themselves and squelch competitors. Northam proposes to outlaw business contributions. Why would he not also outlaw labor union contributions? Because labor unions donate overwhelmingly to Democrats — duh! It’s an iron rule of politics: People in power rig the rules to perpetuate their hold on power.

How about donations cycled through “leadership” committees? Northam would specifically exclude political parties from his caps and bans. As it turns out, he has received $110,000 from Common Good VA, a “leadership” committee set up by Northam’s political ally Governor Terry McAuliffe. Since 2014, the committee has raised $8.6 million in donations. Under Northam’s plan, contributions by Common Good VA to candidates would be exempted from the ban. Less clear from his press release is whether big donors would be permitted to contribute more than $10,000 leadership committees like Common Good VA and similar entities on the Republican side.

Northam’s plan does include a couple of good ideas. It would ban the personal use of campaign funds, and it would mandate donor disclosure for nonprofits seeking to influence Virginia elections. But the main effect of his proposals would not be to rid money from politics, but to fortify the control of Virginia’s political class over the money and suppress insurgent candidates. I don’t know anyone who thinks that’s a good idea but members of the political class.

Your Money Ain’t No Good Here, Dems Tell Utilities

Antipathy toward Virginia’s electric power companies is entering the realm of electoral politics. More than 50 Democratic candidates running for the Virginia House of Delegates have signed a pledge saying that they will “never” accept campaign contributions from Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power, reports Graham Moomaw with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The pledge was circulated by Activate Virginia, a progressive Political Action Committee dedicated to electing more Democrats to the House of Representatives, calling for a “principled stand” against the fossil-fuel industry to prevent “environmental catastrophe,” Moomaw writes. Activate Virginia did not circulate the petition to House of Delegates incumbents, most of who have already accepted campaign contributions from electric utilities.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion has donated $767,000 to political candidates in 2016-2017, while Appalachian Power has contributed $278,000.

The Activate Virginia initiative threatens to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party between those who place environmental priorities foremost and those who seek a balance between environmental and economic-development considerations. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, viewed as the establishment Democratic candidate, has accepted Dominion money. Rival Tom Perriello has called upon him to reject further donations, saying that Virginia’s next governor “must aggressively promote clean, renewable energy.”

Although Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart has been highly critical of Dominion Virginia Power’s plans to dispose of coal ash, Dominion and Apco are less toxic to Republican sensibilities. Cutting CO2 emissions isn’t a priority for Republicans, who tend to be skeptical of the idea that global warming presents a crisis for human health and prosperity.

A confluence of factors has caused the surge in anti-utility sentiment.

First is a shift in fuel mix from coal to other energy sources that has prompted utilities to re-engineer their electric transmission systems and natural gas delivery systems. The result has been a wave of major new or upgraded infrastructure projects, both electric transmission lines and natural gas pipelines, which are visually intrusive and potentially environmentally disruptive.

Second is the relatively slow pace in Virginia of adopting renewable energy, especially solar. Under the current regulatory structure, Dominion and Apco have no incentive to cooperate with independent companies seeking to build solar projects and sell electricity directly to consumers. Instead of seeking regulatory reforms to alter the incentives — a formidable undertaking — environmentalists have taken to attacking Dominion and Apco for pursuing their self interest.

Third is the unexpected emergence of coal ash disposal as a major environmental issue. No one anticipated this two years ago when the Environmental Protection Agency enacted regulations to close coal ash pits in order to prevent spills into public waterways. The debate over how best to dispose of the ash — whether to bury in place or to convey millions of tons to lined landfills — has become enormously contentious.

Fourth is a regulatory freeze in base electric rates, negotiated in a legislative deal two years ago in response to the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. The Trump administration likely will seek to scuttle the plan, which would render the need for a rate freeze moot. Critics contend that the freeze has allowed Dominion and Apco to lock hundreds of millions of dollars of excess profits in place; the utilities deny the charges.

Because these conflicts are complex and deep-rooted with no easy resolution, they will persist for years. Indeed, multi-billion dollar decisions over the future of nuclear power in Virginia could add a new element to the debate. Popular agitation over electric-utility policies could well intensify, and utility campaign contributions, now dispensed without regard to political party, could well become a partisan litmus test.

A New Book Examines the Virginia Way

virginia-politicsby Peter Galuszka

Over the past several years, Virginia has seen plenty of high drama and low politics.

There was the tawdry corruption trial of former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. At the University of Virginia, Teresa Sullivan, the school’s popular president, was temporarily ousted in a mysterious coup. Everywhere were unlimited amounts of political money, revolving doors and public benefits for rich individuals and companies.

Taken together, the events might be a tipping point for the Old Dominion, ending, or at least reining in, the so-called “Virginia Way” of lax ethics rules and the assumption that players are honest gentlepeople.

An excellent summation of how and why the stars have so aligned can be found in a new book, “Virginia Politics & Government in a New Century, The Price of Power,” by Jeff Thomas (The History Press).Thomas, a Duke University engineering graduate who worked in non-profits in the District, lays out in painstaking detail how largely unregulated money donations have led to an extraordinary web of conflicts of interest. This paradigm has been going on for years and has been largely unquestioned, until now.

Drawn largely from the work of Virginia journalists and political analysts, Thomas finds that:

Thomas Farrell, the head of the power utility Dominion Resources, set up his young son Peter, an “amateur thespian,” to get the Republican nomination to be a delegate from Henrico County. Later, the Farrells used their clout to get more than $1 million in state aid for a Civil War movie they wrote and produced and in which Peter Farrell acted.

Sinecures abound. After he left the state senate in 2013, Henry Marsh, 80, became a part-time board member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control at a salary of $122,000. Del. Bob Brink 66, became a deputy commissioner for aging for $110,000 a year. Del. Algie Howell, 76, got a parole board seat worth $122,455 a year.

McGuireWoods, one of the state’s most prominent and wealthiest law and lobbying outfits, got more than $4.6 million in help from Richmond, otherwise crippled by a 25 percent poverty rate and crumbling school buildings, to build a new headquarters downtown.

The Washington Redskins, the fifth richest team in the National Football League, got $11 million from Richmond to build a summer training camp that the Redskins use only three weeks a year.

The state created a fund, with money from Virginia’s share of a huge health settlement with four large tobacco companies, to help Tobacco Road counties. One of its directors ended up in prison with a 10-year sentence for fraud and self-dealing. Still, the tobacco fund has paid money for new factories in the southern and western parts of the state that haven’t created anywhere close to the number of jobs advertised.

Exhibit A, of course, is the McDonnell case. The couple accepted more than $177,000 in cash, gifts, loans and vacations from vitamin supplement salesman Jonnie R. Williams Sr. The Supreme Court vacated the governor’s convictions, and he and his wife are now free. But their six-week-long trial in 2015 revealed extraordinary conflicts and hubris in the Executive Mansion.

Since then, the state has applied some cosmetic limits on accepting gifts. But donations can run sky high as long as they are reported. Even gift-giving still has plenty of loopholes, provided the giver is a “personal friend.” Travel funded by corporations is okay, too.

Thomas, a native Richmonder, has done Virginia residents a valuable service with his book. The depth of his research is impressive although the text is overly chopped up, making it a more difficult read.

In sum, he writes: “The Virginia Way cannot change as long as politicians’ self-conceptions hinge on their own righteousness, for if there can be no fall, there can be no catharsis.”

This review first appeared in the Washington Post’s “All Opinions Are Local” section.

The System Is Rigged… and Trump Ought to Know

The system is rigged!

Building a big, beautiful tax break

Back in the day, Virginia was one of the most reliable Republican states in presidential elections.  That changed in 2008, with the election of President Obama.  Current polling indicates that the deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton has a double-digit lead over Donald Trump.  The core of this support seems to be amongst college-educated whites in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Now there is more trouble ahead for “The Donald”!! The lead story in today’s New York Times details how, after filing for bankruptcy, Trump’s New Jersey casinos owed the state of New Jersey $30 million in back taxes.  The article discusses how, after Chris Christie ascended to the governorship, the state settled for 17 cents on the dollar, or slightly less than $5 million.

And Governor Bob was indicted for, amongst other matters, riding around in a Ferrari?

— Les Schreiber