Richmond Report: Fifth Week
This week was "crossover," the midway point in the legislative session when bills that are successful in each chamber of the Virginia General Assembly cross over to the other chamber.
In my last Richmond Report email, I highlighted some major legislation that passed the House such as those on ethics reform, medical marijuana, and campus sexual assaults. This week, two major bills passed the House while generating a lot of news.
First was the budget bill, House Bill 1400, which adjusts the state's operating funds for the second half of the 2014-2016 biennial cycle. The budget we voted on would fund the government for the fiscal year beginning this July 1.
On the House floor this week, I voted against HB 1400 because it underfunds K-12 public education while also eliminating some preschool funding.
I was also disappointed that the budget did not include Medicaid expansion or funding for essential healthcare for the most vulnerable Virginians. As you may recall, I have been working for the past couple of years to expand Medicaid to ensure that part of the federal tax dollars that you and I have already sent to Washington are returned to support our most needy citizens in Virginia.
Unfortunately, the House budget drafted by Republicans will, again, not include a pathway to expand Medicaid this year.
Over the next two weeks, the House bill will be conferenced with the Senate's version, so I'm hopeful that the final budget will be a better product that I can support.
The other bill that attracted a lot of attention was Senate Bill 1349, which has become known as the "Dominion bill" because it was drafted specifically to benefit Dominion Virginia Power, the giant utility company.
As reported in the Washington Post and other newspapers , the bill allows Dominion to avoid several years of scrutiny by the State Corporation Commission, which is the only government regulatory watchdog that can force the utility company to give refunds to customers if they are overcharged.
As a member of the House Commerce and Labor Committee, I participated in almost three hours of debate on the bill, and I asked the sponsors and Dominion about the need for this legislative relief. I also wanted to understand the financial implications to both customers and Dominion of taking this unusual step.
What I learned was that the bill would help some residential customers by freezing their rates at today's amount, which sounds laudable. I also noted that the Senate improved the bill from its original version by adding incentives for solar energy and some other provisions to make the bill more palatable to consumers.
However, the reason I opposed the bill is because it would set the bad precedent of allowing a regulated company to "forum shop" between its regulatory agency and the Legislature, depending on where they would benefit the most.
For example, the bill would allow Dominion to lock in an advantageous status quo–the company could keep their profits, as high as $280 million per year, without having to refund any overages to customers, which their government regulator, the SCC, would require from them if overages were discovered through continued regular reviews.
I also believe that the bill is premature in that it seeks legislative relief based on actions that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have not yet taken on requiring clean power plants. I thought a more prudent approach would have been for Dominion to wait another year and introduce legislation only after Dominion could make the case for how the EPA's proposal would, in fact, impact its business.
On the House floor, I was one of only 24 Republican and Democratic delegates to vote against the bill. Although I don't like to be in a minority of votes on any major legislation, on this bill, I was pleased to take the contrarian position to those of the vast majority of my colleagues who thought this legislation for Dominion was a good idea.
You can read more about any of these bills from the Virginia General Assembly's website at lis.virginia.gov.
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts on the legislative session so far. If you have any questions or comments about any of these or other issues, please contact me at DelMKeam@house.virginia.gov or (804)698-1035.