Republican anger, progressive concern combine in push to ban political spending by utilities

Senator calls on Youngkin “to take a firm stand on this issue”

By: and - January 17, 2022 3:04 pm

Dominion Energy offices in Richmond, Va. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Legislative proposals to curb Virginia utilities’ political contributions may be gaining new traction in Richmond as old resentments over a 2015 utility rate freeze law combine with progressive Democrats’ skepticism of utility influence and Republican anger over Dominion Energy’s contributions to a shadowy PAC attacking Gov. Glenn Youngkin during the 2021 elections.

Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, said proposals by him, Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, and Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, have “a very good chance” at clearing the Republican-controlled House of Delegates. Petersen said he expects the support of “a portion” of Democrats in the Senate they narrowly control.

“I can’t get them all. I certainly can’t get the ones that are more senior in leadership,” said Petersen during a news conference Monday with Ware. “But I can get a portion of my caucus.” 

Garren Shipley, a spokesperson for House Republicans, said party members “haven’t discussed [the bills] at length yet” as a caucus. 

Petersen also called on Youngkin to throw his support behind the proposals. Both he and Ware said they had spoken to the new governor, with Ware indicating Youngkin “sees some affinity” with their goals, but the administration has taken no public stance on the legislation. 

State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City.

“The commonwealth needs the new governor to take a firm stand on this issue, and my hope is that will change the dynamic,” said Petersen. 

Political contributions by utilities have been a hot-button issue in Virginia in recent years largely due to Dominion, the state’s largest electric utility and for many years the biggest corporate donor in state politics. Many of the loudest voices for reform have come from an influx of progressive Democrats starting in 2017, who “in a lot of ways moved the needle on this issue,” said Petersen, an early proponent of restrictions on public service coporation political giving. 

In last year’s race for governor, the company sparked particular outrage among Republicans by bankrolling a mysterious PAC effort meant to depress turnout for Youngkin in rural areas. At the time, Dominion claimed it was unaware of the PAC’s activities, but post-election financial disclosures show the utility and its executives provided almost half the money the PAC received, according to Cardinal News.  

Factions of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed discomfort with what they describe as Dominion’s outsize influence over the General Assembly, which has passed a series of laws favorable to the utility over the past decade, including a controversial rate freeze in 2015 that remained in place until 2018 and brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits, according to state regulators.

While utilities such as Dominion “are great companies,” Ware said Monday, “they need to be responsible to the State Corporation Commission and not use massive lobbying monies and a large lobbying corps to get around and get what they want from the assembly.” 

Del. Lee Ware, R-Powhatan. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Similarly, Petersen described a scenario “where you have a state monopoly, a state utility that’s not just donating money to campaigns, but also doing so in a way that frankly can be devious, that can be perhaps intended to mislead voters as opposed to inform voters, where again you have a monopolistic company that has a captive audience that is spreading money around the General Assembly and using that to structure the state law.” 

Asked about its stance on Petersen and Ware’s legislation and Petersen’s comments, Dominion spokesperson Rayhan Daudani said in an email that “campaign finance laws should apply to all equally.”

The anti-Youngkin ads Dominion helped finance have also inspired a push to tighten state laws on when PACs have to report their spending activity. Legislation sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, would require PACs to report large pre-election expenditures of $1,000 or more, bringing more immediate transparency while votes are being cast rather than after an election is over.

In a floor speech Monday, Suetterlein said the Dominion-backed ads, which portrayed Youngkin as soft on guns, were “most unusual.”

“There is no excuse for what happened,” he said. “We need more disclosure in this commonwealth.”

Last year, Youngkin’s campaign responded to the ad controversy by suggesting “entrenched interests” were rallying behind his opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, because they were afraid of his outsider status. However, after Youngkin’s victory, Dominion donated $50,000 to his inaugural committee, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Asked Monday where the governor stands on reining in utility donations, Youngkin spokesperson Macaulay Porter said: “The governor will review all legislation that comes to his desk.”

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.

Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.