Bill that would ban Dominion donations dies in Democratic-led Senate committee

Dominion Energy's downtown Richmond building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Dominion Energy, Virginia's largest electric utility and a major U.S. energy company, is headquartered in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A Democratic-controlled Virginia Senate committee on Tuesday voted down a proposal to ban political donations from state-regulated utility monopolies like Dominion Energy.

The legislation died in the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee on a 5-10 vote as four Democrats joined six Republicans in opposition.

The vote was the first test of how the General Assembly’s new Democratic majorities will handle Dominion’s campaign contributions, an issue that has divided the party’s progressive wing and its moderates.

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, has been pushing for years to restrict donations from public service corporations like Dominion, contending they have amassed too much political influence at the General Assembly to the detriment of Virginians’ power bills.

“This is not to impose or allege anything at anybody,” said Petersen, who argued companies like Dominion and Appalachian Power  — investor-owned utilities whose bottom lines are often directly tied to state policy decisions — are unique among Virginia corporations.

A version of Petersen’s bill has been introduced in the House, but, if it passes there, it must return to the same hostile Senate committee.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion has made nearly $13.3 million in political donations since 1996, making the utility the state’s top corporate donor.

The bill would not have applied to cable companies and telecommunications providers.

Opponents of the bill have argued the state shouldn’t single out one class of companies for disparate treatment. At Tuesday’s hearing, a Dominion representative said if the state wanted to pass campaign finance reforms, they should apply to to all corporations.

“If the concern is influence, then that concern should be present across the board,” said Chris Nolen, a McGuireWoods consultant speaking on behalf of Dominion.

Several representatives from natural gas interests and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce also spoke in opposition to the bill.

Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, who voted against the proposal, suggested Democratic megadonor Michael Bills, a Charlottesville investor who has made big donations to Democrats to counter Dominion’s influence, could be acquiring influence of his own.

Bills, who also funds the energy reform group Clean Virginia, has made $3.4 million in donations, putting him among the top individual donors to Virginia campaigns.

“Is he buying y’all’s vote?,” Spruill asked. Spruill’s top donor is Dominion.

“Y’all know who I am. No one’s bought my vote,” Petersen said. “Important people got behind it, great. But that’s not my concern. My concern is just getting this bill passed.”

The other Democrats opposing the bill were Sens. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, and Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. Like many Virginia politicians, all have accepted campaign donations from the influential utility. With the exception of Mason, all count Dominion as a major donor.

Surovell said he feels the General Assembly’s attitude toward utilities like Dominion could be changing anyway given the new Democratic majorities and their control over the State Corporation Commission, which regulates energy utilities.

“I’m excited to see what a newly empowered and constituted State Corporation Commission might do,” Surovell said.

The Democrats who voted for the bill were Sens. John Bell, D-Loudoun, Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. Though all have taken Dominion money in the past, Petersen, Bell, Deeds, Ebbin and McClellan were all endorsed by Bills’ Clean Virginia group, which offered campaign contributions to candidates that refused contributions from the utility.

The committee voted down another Petersen-sponsored bill that would have prevented any individual or company from giving more than $20,000 to any candidate for state office or the General Assembly.