Category Archives: General Assembly

Subsidies for Thee, but Not for Me

Jamestown Settlement — tax thyself!

The economy of the Historic Triangle — Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown — depends heavily upon heritage tourism. Visitor spending reached $1.08 billionand employed 11,000 workers in 2012, according to one report. But last year tourism and hospitality officials were complaining that growth had stagnated.

So, what do you do to boost the region’s No. 1 industry?

Raise taxes, of course. This year the General Assembly passed a bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, to impose a 1 percentage point surcharge on the sales tax to raise revenue to be split equally between a new effort to rekindle Historical Triangle tourism and the three Triangle localities of Williamsburg, James City County and York County, reports the Daily Press. Williamsburg would use the funds to roll back the admissions tax and hotel and meals taxes it approved last year.

Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, had opposed the tax all along on the grounds that it impacted poor people the most. After the bill sat on the desk of Governor Ralph Northam for three weeks, he prevailed upon Norment to amend the tax. The revised version would exempt the sales tax on food and add a $2-a-night hotel surcharge to recoup the lost revenue.

“I think this could be transformational,” Norment said.

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t normally agree with Democratic Party politicians, but Mason is absolutely right about this. It’s one thing to tax hotels and restaurants, as Virginia Beach does, to raise funds to pour into marketing, promotion and infrastructure building. Although local residents do pay more for eating out, the tax is largely paid by the industry itself. But levying a sales tax on the general populace to benefit the industry is quite another thing. Such a tax would indeed impact the poor, who spend a disproportionate share of their incomes on food — not eating at restaurants but food purchased at grocery stores.

The workforce of Williamsburg, York and James City is about 70,000. In other words, five out of six people do not work in the hospitality industry. Undoubtedly some businesses provide goods and services to the sector, thus benefiting indirectly from its presence, but major employers like the College of William & Mary and the Anheuser-Busch brewery do not. The tax would represent a massive subsidy for the tourism sector at the expense of everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong — I personally love heritage tourism. I love visiting Colonial Williamsburg. But is that really the future that Triangle localities want to build for themselves? William & Mary, one of the highest regarded public universities in the country is located there. The Kingsmill Resort, which caters to affluent retirees, is located there. NASA Langley and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator are located a few miles down Interstate 64. For $25 million a year, the community can’t come up with any better economic development initiative than promoting tourism?

As the dominant industry, the tourism sector is converting its political clout into public subsidies in order to perpetuate, even increase, its dominance. While a 1% sales tax surcharge might not seem like a lot, it will have a small dampening effect on economic activity not related to tourism. For example, the surcharge could encourage affluent retirees to select somewhere else to settle down and spend their money, thus impacting Kingsmill Resort-like development in the future and driving away citizens who pay lots in taxes but demand little in the way of government services.

I’m all in favor of not damaging your existing industry by refraining from enacting burdensome regulations and taxes. But if you want to nudge your community into the innovation-driven Knowledge Economy, you don’t do it by taxing the new economy to subsidize the old economy.

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

This will be one of those blog posts where many readers will ignore the substance of my arguments and go straight for the jugular — Dominion Energy Virginia sponsors this blog, I’m a shill for Dominion, and, therefore, anything and everything I say can be discounted without further thought. If you’re one of those people, I know I won’t persuade you. But please, if you object to my conclusion, don’t settle for the cheap ad hominem shot. Explain to me why I’m wrong.

This post was triggered by a Washington Post op-ed by Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, titled, “Why I’m Breaking Up with Dominion.” Keam wrote:

In 2017, President Trump made it clear there would be no Clean Power Plan, which put Dominion in a bind. Dominion couldn’t justify continuing the rate freeze when the reason it cited no longer existed and it held nearly a billion dollars of potential customer refunds.

On the other hand, as Virginia’s most powerful political donor, Dominion couldn’t admit its mistake and simply return to pre-2015 status. So, Dominion launched an all-out lobbying campaign to push for a different result.

First some background: In June 2014, the Obama administration began implementing its Clean Power Plan. The State Corporation Commission (SCC) staff estimated that the plan would cost Dominion between $5.5 billion and $6 billion for Dominion to shut down coal plants and replace them with power from other fuel sources. Environmental groups suggested that the cost would be much less. But nobody knew for sure, and nobody possibly could know until the Commonwealth adopted a definitive methodology for calculating CO2 goals to be attained. When the General Assembly convened in January 2015, uncertainty reigned.

A deal was struck to freeze base electric rates through 2022 (while continuing to allow the SCC to adjust rates for fluctuations in the cost of fuel and pay for major capital projects). The purpose was to guarantee rate stability for electricity customers. Whatever the outcome for Dominion and Appalachian Power, customers wouldn’t be subjected to higher base rates. Dominion and Apco absorbed the risk. They might make higher profits if the costs were lower than feared, but they might make lower profits if worst-case cost scenarios panned out.

In November 2016 something happened that no one anticipated — Donald Trump won the presidential election, and he effectively spiked the Clean Power Plan.

But what if Hillary Clinton had won, as virtually all informed political opinion expected? It’s no stretch to think that the Environmental Protection Agency and the McAuliffe administration would have continued implementing the Clean Power Plan. We cannot know which of the regulatory options the administration would have chosen — setting CO2 emission targets based on mass-based limits (or total tons emitted) or rate-based limits (CO2 emitted per unit of electricity) — but we can safely assume that the new regulatory framework would have been more costly than doing nothing at all.

Continuing our counter-factual scenario, let’s say the Clean Power Plan framework adopted by Virginia would cost the $5.5 billion to $6 billion postulated by the SCC, and that Dominion had to eat a billion dollars or two in write-offs when it shut down its coal-fired power plants. Now let’s say Dominion came to the General Assembly, saying, sniff, sniff, poor us, these regulations are ruinous, could you please bail us out? What answer would Keam and others of like mind have given? They would have said, “Not a snowball’s chance in hell! You took yer chances and you lost. Now beat it!” And rightfully so.

Of course, that’s not the way things turned out. Dominion lucked out. Trump won the election and he canceled the Clean Power Plan. By January of 2018, Dominion was accumulating earnings way above its normally allowed rate of return (although a major weather event or a regulatory order to pay of billions of dollars to clean up coal ash ponds could have negated those profits).

Inevitably, a hew and cry was raised that Dominion was making out like a bandit by pocketing huge excess profits. Dominion was on track to make a lot of money, all right, but not like a bandit. More like a poker player. Dominion didn’t steal anything — but it did win the bet.

A lot of politicians and consumer advocates couldn’t see the difference. And, politicians being politicians, they ignored the risk that Dominion absorbed back in 2015 and clamored for a rollback of the freeze. The game they were playing can be described forthrightly as, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

When it became clear in the November 2017 elections that voters largely agreed with the anti-Dominion politicians, nearly obliterating the Republicans’ hefty majority in the House of Delegates, Dominion saw the writing on the wall. The utility seized the initiative with its proposal to end the freeze on its own terms — by reinvesting over-earnings into a massive grid-modernization plan. Politically, the ploy was brilliant. Dominion cut a deal with the new Northam administration, environmental groups, independent solar producers, and other constituencies, leaving Keam and his buddies to eat dust. I understand why the delegate is so sore.

The resulting Grid Transformation and Security Act may or may not be a good piece of legislation. I haven’t delved deeply enough into the details to conclude whether it will be harmful or beneficial to rate payers. We can be reasonably assured that it will be beneficial to Dominion, or the company would not have gone along with it. But if I were a senior Dominion executive, I’d be very wary of cutting a deal like the 2015 rate freeze ever again. Getting sucked into a heads-you-win, tails-I-lose political proposition is no way to run a business.

Tax Credits for Virginia Coal Mining?

Underground coal mining is a capital-intensive business. Do state tax credits really make a difference?

The House of Delegates has passed a bill sponsored by Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, in the House and Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, that would provide state tax credits for the production of metallurgical coal.

The legislation, which would offer $200,000 in tax credits next year and about $500,000 the year after, is more modest than previous efforts, which would have cost the state some $7.3 million in coal tax credits. But former Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed those bills, and Kilgore is hoping that the scaled-back version will pass muster with Governor Ralph Northam.

“At some point and time, you’ve got to figure out how to move forward, and this is how we move forward this year,” Kilgore said, as reported by the Roanoke TimesReinstating the credits would help protect the remaining coal jobs in Southwest Virginia’s struggling coalfields region, he added. 

Bacon’s bottom line: Coal production and coal employment have plummeted in Southwest Virginia over the past three decades, and the mountainous region has not found an industry to replace it. I’m not persuaded, however, that $200,000 or even $500,000 a year will make much difference. Virginia has been mining coal for more than a century, and the most accessible coal seams are played out. The remaining coal lies in seams that are either very thin and expensive to mine or deep underground and expensive to mine.

The state is blessed by one thing, however: the high quality of the coal. Virginia coal tends to have the characteristics that make it appropriate for conversion into coke, which is used in making steel. Metallurgical coal, which is currently enjoying an export boom, accounts for 60% to 70% of the coal coming from Southwest Virginia. Deep underground mines cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, and the big coal companies don’t make that kind of commitment unless they have long-term contracts that lock in the price. Compared to the cost of developing a new mine or keeping an existing one open, a half million dollar tax credit sounds like a drop in the bucket. I would like to see the evidence that the tax credit will encourage additional production.

Rather than doubling down on an inevitably declining coal industry — when the coal is gone, it’s gone and nothing can bring it back — I would urge Southwest Virginia’s legislators to consider applying their energy and creativity to diversifying the economy.

I know of two technologies being developed at Virginia Tech that could bring economic benefits to the region. One is a laser sensor that can be deployed in underground mines to detect methane, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide for the purpose of averting explosions like the one that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. That technology, if deployed, could create a significant business opportunity for a Southwest Virginia engineering firm.

Another technology would process gob piles — the mountains of waste resulting from the separation of coal from mineral rock. Gob piles contain considerable coal fines. Another Virginia Tech technology would capture those fines along with other potentially valuable minerals. That innovation holds out the potential for extracting wealth from the massive gob piles dotting the coalfields in Virginia, the Appalachian coalfields, and even the rest of the world.

Then there’s the idea of rebuilding the regional economy in part around outdoor tourism. A half million dollars a year arguably would do a lot more to jump-start positive change in that direction than it would to rejuvenate coal mining. The Bacon family is planning a vacation this fall to New England, and I’m especially looking forward to seeing if the small mountain towns of the People’s Republic of Vermont are bucking the trend of rural decline. I would be delighted if Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Chafin should decide to join us in looking for alternate models of economic development!

Grid Transformation Controversy Shifts to SCC Nominees

The legislative logjam over a controversial electric grid modernization program appears to have broken. The much-modified legislation, backed by Governor Ralph Northam and Virginia investor-owned electric utilities, has passed the House of Delegates and state Senate, and in the estimation of Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Robert Zullo, “could be headed to … Northam’s desk by the end of the week.”

The legislation will enshrine the “investment model” advocated by Dominion Energy Virginia of using rate over-earnings to help pay for building the electric grid of the future, including more solar and wind power, energy efficiency, power-line burial, a pumped-storage facility, a “smart” grid, and hardening against cyber-sabotage and terrorist threats. Opponents say the law could lock in excess utility earnings for years.

Assuming the bills in both houses can be reconciled and enacted into law, the battle between Dominion, Appalachian Power Co. and their detractors won’t be over. The action just moves to the State Corporation Commission. The SCC staff and three judges will hold a series of evidentiary hearings on a long list of proposed investments, and they will balance the broad objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability when deciding whether to approve the requests. Presumably, they will take into account the declaration of the General Assembly that grid-transformation projects are in the “public interest.”

The SCC judges will have latitude — exactly how much is not clear — to draw their own conclusions. So it very much matters who serves on the commission. And it very much matters who will fill the position to be vacated by Judge James C. Dmitri, who, among the three judges, arguably has been the most critical of the electric utilities.

Yesterday the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee interviewed three candidates to replace Dmitri:

  • C. Meade Browder, Jr., assistant attorney general,
  • David W. Clarke, a Richmond lobbyist representing gas and insurance companies, and
  • Maureen Matsen, legal counsel for Christopher Newport University and a former deputy secretary of natural resources under former Governor Bob McDonnell.

Committee Chair Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, a long-time friend of the electric utilities, made it clear that he wants to see the SCC get with the program. Wagner accused the commission, reports Zullo, of an inability to “see the big picture” because of a narrow focus on electric rates and consumer costs.

Wagner compared the commission to a short-sighted business owner who can hoard money by failing to invest in his company but “will end up going out of business for failing to keep up.

“They take that myopic approach despite many statements, getting more and more bold, from the General Assembly as to what the policy is for the future of Virginia and ensuring that those investor-owned utilities make the necessary investments for the long-term good of all Virginians,” Wagner said.

The SCC judge candidates, who are appointed by the General Assembly, expressed support for the new direction of electricity regulation.

Said Brouder: “I’m aware of your particular interest in that area. … I think any commissioners would work within the regulatory framework that y’all have laid out.”

Said Clarke: “It’s clear to me that the sense of the General Assembly is that we need to have more investment. Those things don’t come without a price tag on them, no question.”

Said Matsen: The commission “needs to be a broader, wider vision” on how it handles “a tremendously dynamic and exciting time for the energy industry.”

Conservatives Win Big with House Healthcare Plan

by John Fredericks

Virginia conservatives – and the Trump Administration – should embrace the health care plan rolled out this week by House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights. The House budget includes a plan to bring billions in taxpayer dollars back to Virginia to help uninsured Virginians get health care coverage through Medicaid Expansion.

For four years, I sang a different tune. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with my fellow conservatives at Americans for Prosperity, former Speaker Bill Howell, and other Republicans to fight Medicaid Expansion.

At the time, the future of the Affordable Care Act seemed uncertain, and banking on its promises appeared financially risky. There were fears it would collapse, or be repealed, leaving states to pay for a huge new entitlement we couldn’t afford. That seemed like an unsafe bet for Virginia.

That all changed in 2017.

Today, I unequivocally support the House plan to expand Medicaid to hardworking families in Virginia. Here’s why:

Obamacare isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. After years of trying, Congressional Republicans showed us in 2017 they couldn’t repeal the law. And even if they try again, which seems unlikely, it’s doubtful they will be successful this year or beyond.

In addition to lacking votes, federal Republicans last year showed us they’ve never had anything approximating a viable replacement plan after years of making empty promises to constituents in fund-raising letters. In other words, they misled us.

The most shocking realization came last spring at a White House briefing on the Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. I sat the in briefing room aghast at what I heard – the GOP plan rewarded GOP states that expanded Medicaid (like Indiana, Ohio, and Arkansas) with continued funding, and penalized states that resisted expansion by cutting their funding through reduced block grants.

Instead of benefiting from being a prudent holdout, Virginia would have received less Medicaid funding from Washington! Thanks for nothing.

While it’s easy enough to retreat into orthodox ideology in the face of complex policy decisions that don’t fit into neat partisan boxes, I prefer to deal in reality rather than bury my head in the sand.

The House of Delegates budget plan takes the same clear-eyed, reality-based approach by opting to work with President Trump to secure key conservative reforms such as work rules and personal responsibility standards.

Let’s be honest, this is a plan many Democrats won’t like. If you’re a Republican, that means you’re doing something right. You’re reforming a program rather than just providing a handout.

Speaker Cox is developing a plan incorporating conservative ideals like those Vice President Mike Pence championed when he was Governor of Indiana.

In my mind, if it’s good enough for a conservative like Mike Pence and Indiana, then it’s good enough for Virginia.

Speaker Cox undoubtedly will face misguided criticism from those who can’t see past the politics of the moment. It’s better to have Speaker Cox negotiating the details with Democratic Governor Ralph Northam now than waiting too long and ending up with Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, driving the talks.

Because make no mistake: Many Democrats want straightforward Medicaid expansion, or worse – Bernie Sanders-style socialized healthcare.

The GOP-controlled House is taking the conservative approach to health-care reform and will work with the Trump administration to achieve that goal.

The House plan aims to put low-income Virginians in private insurance plans with premiums and co-pays, giving them skin in the game. The plan sets up health savings accounts so people are incentivized to make their own health-care decisions. And, most importantly, they’ve created a “Training, Education, and Employment Opportunity” program to put people on a path to self-sufficiency. Continue reading

Drowning Puppies at Senate Finance

The Senate Finance Committee in action.

Barring a Lazarus-like resurrection from the dead, a bill that would require Virginia colleges and university boards to allow public input on tuition increases has been killed in the state Senate. The bill won approval in the House of Delegates 99 to 0, sailed through the Senate Committee on Education and Health 14 to 1, but died in the Senate Finance Committee on a 7 to 6 vote.

The bill, championed in the legislature by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, and Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, had been a top priority of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust as well as this blog. Reports the Virginian-Pilot:

James Toscano, president of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, testified in support and said after the hearing that the Senate missed an easy opportunity to let Virginia’s students and paying parents know they care about the high cost of college.

“It’s bad enough that the cost of higher education in Virginia is spiraling out of control,” Toscano said. “But failing to ensure the voices of students and parents are heard before public appointees set tuition is a blow to good governance and transparency.”

But the views of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, two of the public institutions that have raised their tuition the most aggressively in recent years, prevailed.

Representatives for both the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary said they don’t oppose getting input, but said they give plenty of opportunities throughout the year

Betsey Daley, U.Va.’s representative, said the board members, president and other officials’ emails are easily accessible online. The student representative on the Board of Visitors also holds meetings on the issue and is “very aware of the sentiment and mood.”

“One public hearing is not a substitute for year-round input we have at U.Va.,” Daley said.

Bacon’s bottom line: Seriously? Affordability and access are the most important issues facing higher ed today. Student indebtedness, a direct result of unaffordability, is creating a social crisis so acute that President Donald Trump now is contemplating allowing students to discharge their debt through bankruptcy, thus foisting tens of billions of dollars of liabilities onto taxpayers. The real objection is that UVa and W&M don’t want their boards to endure the tedium of hearing the little people bitching about tuition.

Virginia’s colleges and universities, especially its elite colleges and universities, need more transparency and accountability. Their arrogance will haunt them. To paraphrase John Paul Jones: We have not yet begun to fight!

Grading Virginia at Crossover? Give them an A! 

by Chris Saxman

We are now on Day 38 of the General Assembly and only have 22 more days to go before Sine Die (adjournment) on March 10th. Tuesday of this week marked Crossover when each legislative chamber must have acted on its respective legislation, which is then sent over to the other chamber. House bills go to the Senate and the Senate bills go the House — the legislation “crosses over” to the other side of the Capitol.

If you are a follower of Virginia politics, you probably heard your inner monologue say, “Yes, I know. We do this every year.”

In November of 2014, leaders of Virginia FREE gathered at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs to examine the “Virginia Way” of governing. We were joined by former governors George Allen and Gerald Baliles who offered us their perspectives on how Virginia should govern itself following the trial and conviction earlier that year of former Governor Bob McDonnell. Baliles was then the Director and CEO of the Miller Center and had flown back the night before from the Clinton Presidential Library in order to participate.

Baliles offered that in order to restore broken trust, we must take the time to identify the real problems while intellectually agreeing on solutions through mutual respect and consensus. We also must work together to help our political leaders govern by example; however, it will take time. While that is not a direct quote, Baliles did quote 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli asking us to “remember the context.”

So let’s “remember the context” of our political reality in this year’s General Assembly and gubernatorial inauguration of Governor Ralph Northam.

The election results of 2017 here in Virginia were, to say the very least, unexpected. Those results followed the unexpected results of the 2016 election. In fact, today marks the 32nd month since Donald Trump announced his campaign for President of the United States on June 16, 2015.

What’s the context then of the 2018 Virginia General Assembly? Consider the timeline first.

2014 – McDonnell conviction
2015 – Trump
2016 – Presidential nominations and elections
2017 – Virginia Governor and House of Delegates elections

Previously, I have shared the Napoleon quote “There is no destiny, only politics.” Now, allow me to insert into your consideration a quote from journalist Andrew Breitbart “Politics is downstream from culture.”

So what’s the context? Disruption. Massive disruption. Not simply change. Disruption.

Disruption – noun. disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity, or process.

Our culture and economy have been disrupted. Naturally our political disruption then follows since we are a republican democracy in which we elect people to represent us. Elected officials reflect us.

Enter the 2018 General Assembly and newly inaugurated Governor Ralph Northam. New delegates (a lot of them – 19), a new executive branch, and a not so new building in which to work.

Chaos, right?

NO! Not at all. In fact, there is relative calm and a high level of productivity.

Amid all the disruption and potential for chaos, the ship of state is, so far, weathering the storm.

But why?

Well, it just doesn’t happen.

Speaker Vance Wilkins and I were walking across the varsity baseball field of Riverheads High School in the spring of 2002 following an event he had initiated for the nearby elementary school. It was a thrilling event for this old history and government teacher as scores of students and teachers were learning about American government. I said, “Mr. Speaker, that was awesome!” Wilkins never broke stride as we walked replying, “Thanks. You know, nothing happens without leadership.”

So what’s happening so far in Richmond?  Continue reading

Wall Street’s Perspective on Virginia Rate Re-regulation

Ken Cuccinelli

What follows is a letter from former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to members of the House of Delegates two days ago. His discussion of the Wall Street perspective on electric rate regulation adds a new element to the debate, so I publish the letter here with his permission. — JAB 

Dear Delegates,

One of the benefits of being Virginia’s Attorney General is the opportunity to pick various areas of the law into which one can “dig in.” After working on energy projects in the private sector prior to becoming Virginia’s A.G., I was enthusiastic about digging into electricity rates. I learned a lot, including learning about my own mistakes when I was in the General Assembly.

One other thing I learned was that while the issue of electricity regulation is the most complicated with which legislators must contend, “clarity” is often not encouraged but discouraged.  Why would that be so?  Because confusion and the speed of the General Assembly session are used to skew bills against ratepayers (read: taxpayers) while downplaying or denying the worst possible real-world applications of the proposed bill.

This was the case in 2015, and it appears to be the case again this year.

The SCC staff has done an admirable job in their bill summaries of clarifying a complex and confusing issue.  That provides one source of clarity.

Where else might we find clarity?  While you might not think about it, another source of clarity is Wall Street. Any perceived misdirection or incompleteness in Dominion or APCo statements to Wall Street subjects them to lawsuits – a consequence that does not exist within the General Assembly. For example, what was the consequence to Dominion of the fact that their main argument for the 2015 bill was not, shall we say, … accurate?

The main consequence is that Virginia’s taxpayers have electricity rates that amount to the equivalent to almost a $500 million tax increase (combining the cost of both Dominion and APCo).  The 2015 bill thus qualifies as one of the biggest tax increases in Virginia history, except that instead of those dollars being used for transportation, education, public safety, etc., they just go as a windfall to Dominion and APCo shareholders.

So, what does Wall Street think of HB1558/SB966 (hereafter “SB966” or “the bill”)?

On February 1st, investment bank UBS issued a report to their clients that gushed over how spectacularly Dominion handles the General Assembly and Governors of Virginia to boost Dominion’s value (at the expense of Virginia ratepayers). UBS called SB966 a “catalyst” that drives Dominion’s stock price higher, and Wall Street is so sure the General Assembly will pass the bill, and Gov. Northam will sign it, that it has already priced the benefits to Dominion of the bill into Dominion’s stock price!

UBS, in a model of understatement, opens its discussion of the bill by saying “Dominion has proven adept at navigating VA politics.” UBS continues by noting “…the state’s history of constructive utility legislation…” leads them to believe “that the bill has a good chance of passing.”

Of course to Wall Street, “constructive utility legislation” means legislation that makes it even easier for Dominion to make a lot of money, which would be a great thing, if it didn’t amount to legalizing seizure from Virginians and our businesses.  This grab is ‘legalized’ by the General Assembly and the Governor.

How easy does Wall Street think Virginia is on Dominion? UBS thinks Virginia’s regulatory environment is SO favorable to Dominion that they add a full 5% to the expected value of Dominion’s Virginia business just because of Virginia’s anti-consumer/pro-Dominion regulatory structure.  Now THAT is quite a return on Dominion’s “investments” in lobbying and donating to campaigns!

Dominion spends mere millions on TV commercials, on lobbying and on political contributions to candidates and legislators and in return Dominion gets to write its own legislation that returns billions of dollars in cash and value. That means that Wall Street thinks Virginia is among the easiest regulators of utilities in the entire country – i.e., Virginia’s General Assembly and Governors are pushovers for Dominion.

To use a dating analogy, if Virginia were dating utilities, her name and phone number would be on the boardroom wall of every utility in the Commonwealth under phrases like “for a good time call….”  And that “good time” doesn’t even cost Dominion very much.

Continue reading

How Is the New Double Dip any Different from the Old Double Dip?

The House of Delegates passed its own version of electric-utility regulatory reform yesterday. The big news is that the House amended the legislative compromise struck between Governor Ralph Northam, the electric utilities, and other key stakeholders to ensure that it prevents the dreaded “double dip.”

Reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

The Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the commission have warned that the bill still restricts the ability of the commission to order refunds and lower base rates and also allows utilities to double charge for the grid and renewable investments: Once by canceling out refunds and again by including the projects in the rate base upon which they earn a profit.

“The governor’s office doesn’t believe that there is a double dip in the bill,” Toscano said Monday. “The entire Democratic caucus was taking the position that if there was no double dip in the bill like everyone has asserted, we will make sure the language is absolutely, positively clear.”

I don’t understand how this arrangement would differ substantively from the way rate regulation always worked. Permit me to express my perplexity with a hypothetical example:

Let’s say Dominion Energy Virginia wants to spend $100 million on burying distribution lines prone to disruption in severe weather events. That may or may not be a sound use of the money, but that’s not the question. The question is how Dominion would be compensated for that investment under the proposed new rules.

First, let’s assume that the utility is raking in excess revenue. Rather than rebate the excess to rate payers, Dominion gets to “reinvest” that money in a panoply of grid modernization projects of which distribution line undergrounding is one. Rate payers don’t get the money rebated to them. That’s the first dip. Then Dominion gets to build that $100 million investment into its rate base, and it gets to generate a return on investment — let’s say 10% for purposes of simplicity — until it is fully depreciated. Instead of rate payers getting to generate income on that $100 million, Dominion gets to pocket the income. That extra $10 million constitutes the double dip.

But that’s not the whole story! Under the pre-rate freeze regulatory regime that governed rate setting until 2015, Dominion would have filed for a rider, or Rate Adjustment Clause, to cover the $100 million capital investment of burying the power lines. As I understand it, Dominion also would have been entitled to recover not just the up-front capital but the cost of capital — about 10%.

Under the Northam-Dominion compromise, Dominion would not get to file a rider. Call that a reverse double dip. Rate payers would benefit the once because Dominion doesn’t get its $100 million back through a rider. And they would benefit twice because Dominion wouldn’t get to recover its cost of capital. In other words, it’s a wash. The only difference is that the expense is embedded in the “base” rates instead of in a rate adjustment clause.

Now, there are many other issues one might raise about the re-regulation legislation. Does it undermine the State Corporation Commission’s role overseeing electric utilities? Should the General Assembly declare massive “grid modernization” investments in solar power, wind power, pumped storage, energy-efficiency, smart grid investments, and underground burying of transmission and distribution lines to be in the “public interest,” thus lowering the bar for SCC approval? Great questions, let’s debate!

But double dipping? Dominion won’t get any more licks of ice cream than it did before — unless I am missing something. If I am, I beg you, please explain how the proposed new double dipping differs from the old double dipping. If your explanation makes sense, I will publish it on the blog.

Update: As you can read in the comments, Tom Hadwin and I went back and forth on this issue. Here is how I now understand it:

(1) Rate payers lose the $100 million rebate.
(2) Then the $100 million goes into the rate base, where it must be repaid to Dominion. (That’s the point I wasn’t comprehending before.)
(3) Plus ratepayers pay Dominion a 10% rate of return on the $100 million.
(4) Dominion does not file a Rate Adjustment Clause (RAC), saving rate payers $100 million.
(5) With no RAC, Dominion doesn’t earn 10%, and rate payers don’t have to pay it.

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.