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by Brandon Jarvis

Democratic state Sen. Chap Petersen (Fairfax) and Republican Del. Lee Ware (Powhatan) are pushing legislation that would ban campaign political contributions from public utility companies like Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company.

Dominion is widely regarded as one of the most powerful entities in Virginia politics. They give state legislators, who have no limit on how much they can accept from anyone, hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Petersen and Ware want to stop that.

“There is a principle involved and the principle is well known to other and most legislators,” Ware said during a press conference Monday. “Public utilities like Dominion and [Appalachian Power] are supposed to be regulated for rate purposes by the State Corporation Commission (SCC). Instead, for many years the legislature has not only allowed but enabled these companies to circumvent SCC oversight in exchange for robust contributions to legislators.”

During the 2021 primary race, for example, Dominion provided a last-minute $100K donation to Hala Ayala in the Democratic primary to help her win the nomination for lieutenant governor.

The Virginia Public Access Project shows that Dominion has given more than $30 million for political reasons over the years.

Petersen described Dominion as a “monopolistic company that has a captive audience and is spreading money around the General Assembly and using that to structure the state law.”

He compared the donations that Dominion makes to legislators with contributions from other companies and explained why he believes it is different. “Typically when you get money from a company in politics, it is in a free market context where they are lobbying. But, they don’t have a captive audience, they are just out there competing.”

Both Petersen and Ware seemed cautiously optimistic that Governor Glenn Youngkin might be willing to support this legislation. Petersen said he met with the governor about this bill in December, but he noted that the governor made no commitments at the time.

Dominion and individuals associated with the utility company contributed to a federal Pac that attacked Youngkin from the right during his campaign. Then, after his victory, Dominion donated $50K to the governor’s inaugural committee.

“To be blunt, we need the new governor to speak out on this issue,” Petersen said. “I can get a portion of my caucus. I can’t get them all. I certainly can’t get the ones that are more senior in leadership.”

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Dick Saslaw’s (Springfield) top donor, for example, is Dominion — who has given him more than half a million dollars over the years. Senate President Pro-Tempore Louise Lucas (Portsmouth) has received $193,450 from the utility company.

There has been a movement since 2017 in the Democratic Party to reject any donations from Dominion. This movement has been financed and pushed largely by Clean Virginia, a good-governance advocacy group that has also donated millions of dollars to Virginia Democrats in recent years trying to gain influence.

Backed by mega-donor Michael Bills, Clean Virginia requires candidates who receive their money to not receive any contributions from Dominion. Their donations rival Dominon’s in primary races and they are seeing some success in some House districts around the commonwealth.

Their statewide motives, however, haven’t come to fruition yet.

They swung and missed during the statewide Democratic primary races earlier this year as their favorite candidates came up short in each race. Terry McAuliffe did not take Dominion money this cycle but he was supported by some of the biggest-pro Dominion legislators in the state. McAuliffe handily won the primary in June, with one of his competitors being Jennifer Carroll Foy. Carroll Foy received more than $1 million from Clean Virginia and its allies for that primary race.

Clean Virginia is now looking to focus on 2023 and gaining influence in the state Senate. “This outsized political influence hurts Virginians,” they wrote on social media Monday.

With a slim 21-19 Democratic majority in the Senate and the low likelihood all Democrats support the bill, Republicans will have to support the legislation as well if it is going to pass. However, they are also funded heavily by Dominion. The power company is the Senate Republican Leader Tommy Norment’s (James City) top donor at nearly $200K.

Youngkin using his influence might be the only possible option that Ware and Petersen have at passing this bill.

Youngkin’s office said that he will review all legislation that comes to his desk.

“Gov. Youngkin has indicated while he understands that these are great companies, they need to be responsible to the SCC and not use massive lobbying money and a large lobbying corp to get around and get what they want,” Ware said Monday.

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By vascope

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