Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, claps on the Senate floor. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Back in 2018, as Dominion Energy was pushing its contentious Grid Transformation and Security Act through the General Assembly, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee was debating whether the legislation allowed a “double dip” — that is, billing ratepayers twice for hundreds of millions in new utility spending contemplated by the law.

Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, pointed to Dominion lobbyist Jack Rust (a former state delegate) and called on senators who were getting queasy about passing yet another package of giveaways to utility shareholders to just take his word for it rather than pay heed to objections from the Attorney General’s Office and staff from the State Corporation Commission.

“If he tells you this thing cannot be double-counted, you can pretty much take that to the bank. I think they’ve solved the problem of that,” Saslaw said.

Of course, there was in fact a double dip in the law, illustrated best by the late-night vote later in the session by the House to excise it.

Since then, Democrats have taken control of both the House and Senate; a new group, Clean Virginia, has pumped millions into Virginia campaigns to counter Dominion’s much-publicized influence; and the Democratic Party itself and senior figures in it have renounced the company’s cash. In many arenas this session, we’ve been reminded that it’s a new day in Richmond and (constantly, it seems) that “elections have consequences.”

For energy policy though, there may have been no more consequential election than the one that saw Saslaw, first elected as a delegate in 1976, barely squeak by a primary challenger, who hammered him for his long and mutually beneficial ties to Dominion.

And so here we are again with a sprawling energy bill with lots of moving parts apparently heading into conference, dogged by complaints that it’s too friendly to Dominion’s bottom line by some critics and too much for ratepayers to swallow by Republicans, many of whom, with Democrats now in charge, are suddenly very concerned about electric bills. After all, both Republicans and Democrats voted in 2015 to shield Dominion and Appalachian Power from SCC scrutiny of their base rates, which has allowed Dominion to rack up hundreds of millions in “overearnings” in the years since.

And while the Clean Economy Act has lots of merits, there’s also a bi-partisan, complementary bill (the Fair Energy Bills Act) remaining that would go a long way toward resetting the base line for Virginia’s electric utility customers, making the necessary burden of shifting the state to carbon-free generation over the next several decades more bearable for ratepayers. With the clock running out on the session, however, Saslaw hasn’t yet put it on the docket for the Commerce and Labor Committee, which he took over from another Dominion MVP, former Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.

Dominion has been fighting attempts to reduce its base rates from its regulated Virginia utility, which is a major cash cow for the larger company, for years. At Monday’s committee meeting, Saslaw and other senators of both parties united to kill bills that encroached on Dominion’s monopoly, raising concerns about captive ratepayers. (A pro-ratepayer bill, restoring the ability of the SCC to determine how costs related to closure of coal and gas plants will be amortized, did somehow escape Saslaw’s committee over his opposition).

Saslaw’s unapologetic coziness with Dominion, his biggest campaign contributor, is well established.

In 2017, just after he helped kill a bill that would have returned regulation of utility base rates — amid mounting windfalls for shareholders at the expense of ratepayers — to the State Corporation Commission, Saslaw told me this:

“The SCC is on Dominion all the time. Dominion could cure cancer, and the SCC could find fault with them,” he said. (He also bulldozed the way for big Dominion spending on line undergrounding projects the commission had repeatedly rejected as unjustifiably expensive.)

In 2018, he angrily denied that the massive utility regulatory overhaul the company was pushing was “Dominion’s bill.”

The same month, the Associated Press reported on Saslaw’s umbrage when fellow Democrats criticized a Republican state senator’s ties to Dominion. Saslaw had gotten a missive from Dominion executive Bob Blue, who wrote to say he was “disappointed to see this, especially considering how our company has supported Democrats over the years. As you know, many of us have been personal supporters as well.”

Saslaw promptly tried to set Democrats straight. He “quickly apologized and criticized the state party for not doing its ‘homework’ on ‘how generous Dominion has been to me’ and others in the party,” the AP reported.

But that’s not the best bit from the story:

He erupted when a reporter asked whether Dominion executives had ever reminded him of their giving.

“Zero. Zero. Zero,” Saslaw said, his voice rising to a yell.

When reminded of Blue’s email, Saslaw later apologized and said he misspoke.

So, despite all the sound and fury over our dominant utility’s role in Virginia politics and governance, all the pledges and rejection of its campaign cash and the seismic elections that ushered in new Democratic majorities, Dominion, while facing a shifting political landscape and perhaps more uphill sledding, still has a powerful ace in the hole to help keep the odds ever in its favor.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent 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]