by Chris Saxman
Statesmen should remember that they have been elected to persuade and to lead, and not just to accept as fixed the momentary moods and pernicious prejudices of the public.
— Stanley Hoffman
Professor Hoffman might have been quite pleased watching yesterday’s Senate Commerce and Labor Committee as the compromise legislation on electric utility regulation, grid modernization, and energy efficiency was debated and sent to the Senate floor.
Here is Governor Ralph Northam’s press release on the legislation.
The bill – SB 966 – is being carried by Commerce and Labor Chairman Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, along with Senator Dick Saslaw, R-Fairfax), who was carrying a similar bill, SB967. Saslaw’s bill was incorporated or “rolled” into SB966 at the start of the debate.
After that motion came internal committee debate and questioning of Wagner and Saslaw which helped explain the compromise bill brokered by Governor Ralph Northam and House Speaker Kirk Cox. Just hours before the committee meeting, the Governor announced that a deal, in fact, been struck.
Almost all of the committee members spoke at one point and in doing so exposed the extraordinary changes occurring in the political landscape – both in Virginia and in the U.S. Remember, that Virginia is a battleground, bellwether coming off a dramatic statewide election just three months ago. More on that later….
During the 2017 election, the issues being debated yesterday played a prominent but not decisive role.
Senator Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, opened the dialogue as he expressed concerns about the economic value of the significant solar investment required in the bill. The 5,000 megawatts of solar power to be added in Virginia by 2028, he thought, would be too heavy a cost to be paid by ratepayers, suggesting that this was more “social judgement’ than economic good. Obenshain expressed that perhaps the State Corporation Commission is in better position to make such decisions rather than having the General Assembly do it “on the fly.”
Saslaw explained that 5,000 megawatts equated to 1.25 million homes that would be powered by solar generation and that “nothing is free.” Saslaw said that “both” economic and social judgments were being addressed in SB966.
Senator Steve Newman, R-Campbell County, acknowledged his gratitude that the bill was “much improved in just a week” but that he, too, had economic concerns for ratepayers about the solar portions of the bill as a “giveaway too high and too great” for his support.
Senator Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, questioned if the real winners of the compromise were the stockholders of Dominion or Appalachian Power while Senator Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg asked, “Who spoke for the consumers?”
Dana Wiggins of the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which had been very vocal publicly in decrying the current law written in 2015 in response to the Clean Power Plan, stated that while her organization had been part of the working group, it “still had concerns about double charging.” Later Wiggins would testify that the VPLC was neither for nor against the bill, which shocked many observers because the Center’s pre-session commentary had been so negative. Now it was neutral.
Southside Senator Bill Stanley, R-Moneta, did explore, along with Northern Neck Senator Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland,concerns about “double charging” and “giving people their money back” as they questioned Dominion lobbyists Jack Rust and Bill Murray.
Saslaw, a Democrat, interjected about Rust’s integrity based on his many years of working with Rust, a former Republican delegate from Fairfax. When he gave you an answer, “You can take it to the bank.”
In the end, four Senators, all Republican, would vote against the bill — Newman, Stanley, Stuart, and Dick Black of Loudoun — but the real drama occurred following the internal, yet public, committee deliberations.
Chairman Wagner asked for those who were supporting and then those opposing the bill to come forward with their intentions.
First up was the Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler stating the support of the Governor. That Natural Resources was the Governor’s representative and not Commerce and Trade or Legislative Counsel was quite telling. Strickler was followed by the League of Conservation Voters’ Mike Town who expressed the support of LCV, a major Northam supporter in the 2017 campaign. Next came, Natural Resources Defense Council, Apex Clean Energy and the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, followed by Orsted, a Danish offshore wind company which also supported the bill.
Then the business community followed with the Virginia Manufacturers, Washington Gas, Northern Virginia Tech Council, the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Conservatives for Clean Energy, Virginia Offshore Wind, Appalachian Power and Dominion also voiced their public support for the bill.
Seems like a broad based compromise at this point since the Governor, major environmental groups, and many business organizations were supporting the bill, right? Right.
And then Attorney General Mark Herring, through his consumer protection division stated its opposition to the bill along with the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and representatives of large industrial users.
This was followed by the stunning “neutral” position of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.
On one side, the Governor, the Speaker, Senators Saslaw and Wagner, many leading business groups and key environmental groups. On the other side, the Attorney General, from the same party as the Governor and who is thought to be eyeing a run for governor in 2021, further-to-the-left environmental groups, large industrials, and four Republican state senators.
Extraordinary divisions are being exposed while new possible alliances are becoming possible.
Recalling last week’s email quote from Napoleon: “There is no destiny, only politics.”
So far, it looks like the new leaders in Virginia – Governor Ralph Northam and House Speaker Kirk Cox are proving quite capable in navigating politics.
2018 could be the year of the conscious return to The Virginia Way of governing.
The House Committee on Commerce and Labor will take up its version of the bill on Thursday afternoon.
Chris Saxman is executive director of the Virginia Foundation for Research and Economic Education. This commentary was originally published as an email missive.There are currently no comments highlighted.