Proposal to increase State Corporation Commission size draws sharp questions

The State Corporation Commission
The State Corporation Commission regulates Virginia electric utilities. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

In a narrow 10-9 vote, the House Labor and Commerce Committee on Thursday signed off on a bill that would increase the size of the State Corporation Commission, the powerful body that oversees all Virginia utility regulation, as well as insurance, banking and securities, from three to five members.

Since the SCC’s creation in 1902, “the workload of the commission has grown immensely,” said Del. Dan Helmer, the freshman Democrat from Fairfax who has put the measure forward. “Yet the number of commissioners remains exactly the same.”

The proposal faced sharp questioning from the committee, particularly Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, who lobbed a flurry of queries at Helmer about how two extra commissioners would be funded and whether any outside party had asked him to file the legislation.

“I think there’s more to this bill than is being talked of here,” said Kilgore.

Helmer defended his bill on the grounds that not only has the SCC’s jurisdiction expanded over its 118-year history, but the body would benefit from “a multiplicity of voices” representing more diverse backgrounds.

However, current SCC Chair Judith Jagdmann, while specifying that she neither supported nor opposed the bill, struck a note of caution in her comments to the committee.

Commissioners “work very hard” to achieve unanimity on their decisions, she said. “Going from three to five, I think, will make that exponentially more difficult.”

Regarding workload, she said, “we have five hearing examiners who assist with hearing the cases that come before the commission, and I am not aware of any complaints about getting the work done.”

Helmer’s proposal comes as the legislature gears up to elect a commissioner to the seat currently held by Judge Patricia West, who was elected to complete the unexpired term of Judge James Dimitri last January. 

West faces re-election this year, and House Labor and Commerce was slated on Jan. 14 to certify her qualifications for the position, a necessary prelude to election. However, despite the inclusion of the certification on that day’s agenda and West’s own presence, the committee never took action on the item.

Thursday’s vote on increasing the SCC size was along party lines, but at least one Democrat seemed taken aback by the proposal.

Democratic Del. Mark Keam of Fairfax showed hesitation over the potential for the executive branch to exert larger influence over the SCC. Under current law, if a seat on the commission opens up while the legislature is out of session, the governor has the right to appoint someone to fill it.

 “What I don’t want is an executive branch manager, our governor, having the ability to appoint one or two commissioners of his or her choosing without going through us,” said Keam. “We have a better sense of who would be a better fit for diversity, qualifications, and such.”

The bill must now clear the Appropriations Committee before it can be considered by the full House.