State Corporation Commission Judge Mark Christie. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Two seats on the Virginia State Corporation Commission remain vacant due to ongoing squabbles between Democrats and Republicans on who should fill the vacancies and the process to do so.
The SCC, a powerful regulatory body overseeing utilities, insurance and business in the state, is down to one member following the resignation of Judge Judith Jadgmann in December and the General Assembly’s failure to reappoint Angela Navarro last year.
A quorum of two members is needed for the SCC to issue rulings, which include approval or denial of proposals from electric utility companies that aim to comply with the Virginia Clean Economy Act’s mandate to decarbonize the electric grid by midcentury. While the Virginia Constitution authorizes the commission to have up to five members, it has traditionally had three.
Jagdmann in her resignation letter said she would be available for recall in order to achieve the quorum, but SCC Chairman Jehmal Hudson remains the lone judge on the body, with no apparent solution from the General Assembly on how to fill the open seats.
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, introduced bills this session that attempted to break the appointments deadlock by creating roughly equal term lengths for new members.
The proposed legislation would have created a new seat with a six-year term and let a current seat with only one year left in the term expire. The other current vacancy has a five-year remaining term.
The goal of the legislation was to allow the Republican-controlled House to pick a person its leaders want and the Democratic-controlled Senate to pick who it wants. However, the bills failed to make it out of conference, the late-session negotiations where small groups of legislators hash out differences on proposed bills behind closed doors.
House Republicans said the negotiations stalled because of the chambers’ inability to agree on who should fill the vacancies. According to Republicans, Democrats were pushing for Navarro as their pick.
In 2022, House Republicans didn’t reappoint Navarro, a former secretary of commerce and trade under Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration who was closely involved with negotiations on the VCEA. Surovell said he has “never heard a public explanation” on why she wasn’t reappointed.
“We took somebody off the SCC, so we certainly didn’t have any intention to take them off and put them back on again,” Byron said in an interview with the Mercury. “But [Senate Democrats] couldn’t get beyond that so we virtually said we would entertain anybody but someone we took off.”
Surovell wouldn’t confirm if Navarro is the person the Senate has proposed. However, he said he thinks each chamber should pick who it wants without interference from the other, pointing to a 2022 agreement between Senate Democrats and the House GOP over Supreme Court of Virginia picks as a model.
The General Assembly could still revive Surovell and Byron’s legislation and fill the seats in a special session being considered in the absence of a budget deal.
What happens if the legislature fails to make the appointments is also a matter of disagreement.
Republicans say Youngkin could fill the vacancies temporarily under state law giving the governor the authority to make interim appointments when the General Assembly is not in session.
Surovell, though, says because the Senate did not adjourn from the special session in the fall, the General Assembly is still in session and therefore Youngkin does not have appointment power. He said that would keep the seats from being filled until at least the next session, when a new General Assembly is sworn in and ends any outstanding special session. Republicans refute Surovell’s claim.
The Virginia Constitution says neither legislative chamber can adjourn for more than three days without the other’s agreement.
Despite the vacancies, the SCC is still functioning, Byron said, pointing to the ability to recall past commissioners.
“I’m not saying that’s a perfect scenario,” Byron said.
Surovell said not filling the seats is “irresponsible.”
“This is the most powerful entity in the commonwealth that nobody’s ever heard of,” he said.
Following the adjournment of the session Saturday, Youngkin told reporters he had been hopeful that there might have been some last-minute agreements on commissioners.
“The fact that there haven’t been, I have to step back and really address this,” Youngkin said. “We need more, and we’ll most likely find a way to address that.”
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