Protesters outside of Dominion Energy's offices in downtown Richmond last week called for the utility to refund several hundred million dollars in over earnings identified by state regulators. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Autumn? Fall? Samhain?

Nah. There’s only one name for the time between Labor Day and Election Day: the Silly Season. Once, it referred largely to the news desert doldrums of August, but it’s more or less applicable to our politics year-round these days.

Flacks of all persuasions and affiliations are aggressively shopping what’s know as “oppo,” the seeds of what they hope will blossom into damaging stories about political opponents. Groups are trumpeting the obscene amounts of money they’re pouring into campaigns. And incumbents and challengers are getting in the habit of making wild promises or invoking certain doom if their opponents prevail.

With control of the General Assembly hanging in the balance, the stakes are high this year. No shortage of fur is flying, and the campaigns are counting on voters being too busy or ill-informed to look under the hood of the mailers, television ads and other mudslinging that is roaring into high gear just about now.

Fighting for his life against Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, State Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, is vowing to use the heavy hand of the state to make local school zoning changes tougher, apparently a move to court skittish Richmond parents who are opposed to merging elementary schools in the name of a more balanced racial mix.

In her bid to knock off House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, his opponent, Sheila Bynum Coleman, aired an ad that falsely claimed that Cox voted against a budget bill that granted teacher raises, apparently confusing him with another delegate with the same last name.

But nothing has had me shaking my damn head more than a news release issued last week by Cox, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, and two GOP House candidates. The would-be broadside took aim at the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, deriding the Democrat-favored “energy tax scheme” they said would raise electric bills 10 percent a year, citing the State Corporation Commission.

House Republicans blasted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative as an “energy tax scheme” in a news release last week.

Virginia’s entry into the network of carbon-trading states, which was intended to happen via a state regulation two years in the making that was approved by the State Air Pollution Control Board earlier this year, is hobbled for now. (Republicans should know, because they inserted the budget language, which Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam opted not to veto, that knee-capped it).

The costs of joining RGGI for electric ratepayers are very much in dispute, as I wrote in April. The SCC has stuck to its guns in claiming that linking to RGGI will on average add $7 over 25 years to the typical monthly residential bill of customers of Dominion Energy, Virginia’s largest utility. Meanwhile, the Department of Environmental Quality, which projects that RGGI would cause a modest decrease (54 cents) in electric bills between 2020 and 2030, pointed out that the SCC’s numbers rely on “modeling that was conducted in private by Dominion, the state’s largest utility and one of the parties to be regulated by the proposed electricity sector cap.”

The biggest part of the dispute hinges on the SCC’s insistence that RGGI will force the closure of coal-fired power plants already paid for by Virginia ratepayers that would otherwise continue running absent carbon regulation. This, however, is a dubious assumption given the thrashing coal is taking at the hands of natural gas and renewables, according to William Shobe, a professor of public policy and economics at UVA who helped design the carbon allowance auctions for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“Ratepayers are already paying more for the low capacity factors at these plants. That will almost certainly get worse without RGGI,” Shobe told me in April. “It is possible that the year of actual retirement will be moved up a little bit due to RGGI, but much of the reduction in the use of these plants, and hence much of the costs to ratepayers of not using them to capacity, is completely independent of whether Virginia joins RGGI or not.”

Which brings us to Kilgore, who doesn’t face a challenger this year.

“This is a fundamental difference between the two parties,” he said in that news release. “This energy tax scheme known as RGGI would not only raise electric bills for residential customers, but will also close power plants costing us jobs. Virginia Democrats tried to force Virginia into this program unilaterally earlier this year and Virginia Republicans were the only thing standing between higher electric bills and our constituents. We are going to continue to support policies that ensure electricity is affordable for Virginia families.”

Whoa boy.

Stiffing Virginia electric ratepayers has long been a bipartisan exercise (though the fault lines are changing), and no one knows that better than Kilgore.

Both Kilgore and Cox, along with many other members of the legislature, voted for the 2015 “rate freeze” bill that halted the ability of the State Corporation Commission to issue customer refunds on utility overearnings.

However, Kilgore, as chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, has done more than probably anyone in the House to ensure that utilities get to hold onto ratepayer money that they otherwise would have to give back. He and Dominion have a long and mutually beneficial relationship. The company remains his top donor, to the tune of nearly $186,000 over the years, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Last year, during the House’s “Sensitivity Caucus” mock awards, Kilgore’s colleagues bestowed upon him the “Overdog” award for his enthusiastic championing of the “big boys” in Dominion’s latest electric regulatory overhaul, called the Grid Transformation and Security Act.

As the bill was winding its way through a thorny legislative process, the commission warned that it would impose “limits on the SCC’s authority to return a utility’s excess earnings to customers through refunds and base rate reductions and limits on the SCC’s authority to ensure that customers do not overpay for utility-owned renewable and other projects if and when there are less costly alternatives available.” The SCC staff added that by deeming certain capital projects in the public interest, such as distribution line burial programs that the SCC had previously rejected as too expensive, the bill’s provisions “could result in billions of dollars in additional costs that will be paid by customers in higher rates.”

In June, after it approved Dominion’s most recent long-term plan, the commission said that the legislation Kilgore helped carry “will cost customers more than $6 billion in extra costs above the least-cost plan, not including lifetime financing costs.”

If you had spent much of your 25 years in the General Assembly building a glass house by working to enrich corporate monopolies at the expense of their captive customers, you’d probably avoid throwing stones about potential increases in electric rates.

If your colleagues — Democrat and Republican — had given you a trophy stuffed with fake cash with Dominion’s logo on it, complete with a new “Reverse Robin Hood” nickname for your skill at steering ratepayer money to utility shareholders, you might want to avoid assuming the mantle of electric affordability champion.

That, of course, would be silly.

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Robert Zullo
Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]