Dominion rate bill splits prince william delegation, regardless of local power line pitch prince william insidenova.com gas after eating

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A controversial bill to restore state regulation of electric utility rates contains a provision squarely aimed at sweetening the pot for Prince William County lawmakers; but almost all of the county’s delegation in Richmond voted against it, all the same.

Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, successfully rolled language involving a western Prince William power line proposed by Dominion Energy into the massive utility rate legislation, even though the project is largely unrelated to the broader bill, and he’s touted it frequently as a way to ensure the new line runs underground and has minimal impact on neighborhoods in Gainesville and Haymarket.

At the urging of leaders of both parties, the full bill passed the House of Delegates on a 63-35 vote Feb. 13. But Hugo and Del. John Bell, D-87th District, were the only delegates representing parts of Prince William to support it — both of them represent areas near the power line’s planned path. Fellow western Prince William Dels. Danica Roem, D-13th District, and Lee Carter, D-50th District, vocally opposed the bill.

The legislation now proceeds to the Senate, which passed its own version of the bill, and lawmakers will likely convene a “conference committee” to hammer out the details between the two versions. Even with such a long way to go, Hugo is perplexed why the bill hasn’t gained more support from his Prince William colleagues at this point.

“If Danica Roem and some of these other Prince William County delegates bring this bill down, there’s going to be 110-foot power lines in people’s backyards,” Hugo said in an interview. “I don’t know what they were thinking…I think it’s more ideological than pragmatic.”

Hugo omits, however, the long regulatory process left to play out on the project. State regulators initially lent the power line their approval, but they’re set to hold a new hearing in April to evaluate whether Dominion should proceed with the 230-kilovolt line.

Nuances aside, the debate exposes an unusual rift among Prince William’s delegation. Even though delegates like Roem and Carter are staunch power line opponents, they’re also no fans of the rest of the bill, considering their skepticism of Dominion’s influence in Richmond.

The full bill is perhaps the most hotly contested matter before the General Assembly this year. After all, the bill could alter the company’s financial prospects for years to come. The bill would allow regulators with the State Corporation Commission to adjust the company’s electric rates once more, but would not restore their authority to demand that Dominion offer refunds to customers if they determine those rates are too high.

Dominion successfully convinced the legislature to put a temporary “freeze” on adjustments of its electric rates in 2015, and this year’s legislation would send about $200 million back to customers to compensate for the high rates the company has charged since then. Dominion is also promising to send another hundreds of millions of dollars in refunds to customers after Congress’ decision to slash the corporate tax rate.

Nevertheless, Roem says her constituents overwhelmingly urged her to oppose the bill, over concerns that the refunds would merely be temporary. Regulators would be able to direct the company to use any excess revenues from charging high rates to pay for investments in the electrical grid or expanding its use of renewable energy, but utilities wouldn’t have to refund the money to customers.

“The SCC authorizes investment into what’s cheapest, and over the last two years or so, price of green energy has dropped like a stone,” Carter said. “Under current law we’re going to get this green energy investment anyway…We’re in a different world than we were two years ago.”

The legislation would also only allow regulators at the SCC to review utility rates once every three years, instead of the biennial reviews it once conducted. That further angered some Democrats — as Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd District, puts it: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Roem says she also based her opposition to the bill on concerns over the nuances of the power line provision in the legislation. She initially supported Hugo’s effort, but after meeting with Dominion officials and some of her constituents, she said she lost confidence in the effectiveness of its language.

The SCC will have the final say on the route the power line will follow, if it gets built at all, and the lone underground route Dominion has proposed would run partially along Interstate 66. However, that was the case when Dominion first introduced the project years ago, a fact Hugo is quick to point out.

Roem is also worried that the bill doesn’t preclude the company from building the project underground initially, then coming back and constructing additional lines above ground. She even fears that the bill simply gives Dominion the option to build the line underground, without forcing the company to pursue the options.

Elena Schlossberg–the executive director of the Coalition to Protect Prince William County, a group fighting to block the power line–is sympathetic to the position lawmakers like Roem are in on the bill. In many ways, it mirrors her own quandary.

After years of tangling with Dominion over the project, Schlossberg is no great fan of the utility company’s rate freeze. Yet she’s also carefully monitoring the undergrounding provision that’s now tied up in the broader bill’s fate, even as she remains hopeful that regulators will block the project and Hugo’s bill will remain just an “insurance policy.”

Even if Hugo can’t sway his colleagues, the bill still has broad support, at least for now. An amendment from House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-57th District, preventing the company from “double-charging customers” — for instance, if the SCC directed the company to use excess earnings to pay for grid improvements, some feared the company would still be able to turn around and charge customers for those same improvements — alleviated many nervous delegates’ concerns about the bill.

The Senate version of the bill passed similarly overwhelmingly, by a 26-13 margin, but it doesn’t contain a measure similar to Toscano’s amendment. That will likely prove a key issue for the House and Senate to hash out before the bill is ready for a final vote, but (despite Hugo’s fears) some Richmond watchers fully expect it to pass.

“I will be surprised if Dominion ends up with a genuinely unfavorable outcome from this legislature,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Dominion might not get everything they might want, or would have gotten a year or two ago, but we’re at least a few sessions away from a truly anti-Dominion legislative majority.”