Two Virginia lawmakers propose banning public utilities from making political contributions

Virginia Politics
Dominion Energy

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Democratic state senator and a Republican state delegate are proposing bills that would ban public utilities like Dominion Energy from giving political donations, an effort that has failed to get through the Virginia General Assembly for years.

Del. R. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan) and state Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) have each filed measures for the 2022 legislative session to prohibit public utility companies from making contributions to state candidates, political action committees (PACs) and campaign committees.

Virginia’s two largest electric utilities, Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, have donated millions to candidates since 2010. While Appalachian has doled out more than $4.1 million since then, Dominion is the state’s biggest corporate political donor and has contributed more than five times that figure, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project.

Efforts to keep these utilities from making campaign contributions in Virginia are not new. For example, Sen. Petersen has introduced measures, identical to his new bill, that have been killed in committee for the last three years.

Nine of the ten state senators who voted down Petersen’s bill last year received political donations from Dominion Energy, according to the VPAP.

Dominion donated over $4.5 million in 2021 alone to candidates of both parties. The chart below shows who that money went to.

Petersen said he has been encouraged by progressive lawmakers in the General Assembly who have been publicly scrutinizing the political influence Dominion Energy has had in Virginia. However, he acknowledged the effort would need the backing of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin.

“Hate to say it but I really need Mr. Youngkin to step up and say it’s time for Dominion’s money to get out of Virginia politics,” Petersen said in an interview Thursday, noting that he feels support from Youngkin would persuade Republican lawmakers in the legislature to get behind the bill.

A spokesperson for Youngkin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or comment on whether the incoming governor would sign the bill if it reached his desk. In October, Youngkin said in a radio interview that he would stand up to Dominion Energy after the utility gave $200,000 to a secretive PAC attacking the Republican during his gubernatorial campaign.

Dominion Energy, the state’s largest regulated electric monopoly, has generally given Republicans and Democrats similar amounts of political donations throughout the years. The company has given $50,000 to Youngkin’s inaugural committee, according to VPAP.

Critics of the company’s power in Virginia politics have questioned legislative changes that have blocked rate reviews as prices for customers continued to rise. Bills that would have strengthened state oversight of Dominion and would have allowed for customers to get the utility’s over earnings were rejected by committees with Dominion-backed lawmakers on them.

Dominion Energy did not make anyone available for an interview.

“Campaign finance laws should apply to all equally,” Rayhan Daudani, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, wrote in an email.

A spokesperson for Appalachian Power Company did not return 8News’ calls.

Petersen said he spoke with Del. Ware, who did not return 8News’ message seeking an interview, and other lawmakers about his bill.

“It’s high time that Dominion Energy gets out of politics,” said Brennan Gilmore, the executive director of Clean Virginia, in an interview with 8News.

Clean Virginia, an advocacy group founded by Michael Bills, a wealthy investor, funds candidates who reject campaign contributions from Dominion Energy.

The commonwealth does not have contribution limits for political action committees, corporations or individuals donating to candidates. Virginia also allows party committees to donate unlimited amounts of money to campaigns.

Calls to overhaul Virginia’s campaign finance laws have been growing, but little has been done to advance changes.

The state legislature established a new panel called the Joint Subcommittee to Study Comprehensive Campaign Finance Reform to study the issue and consider possible recommendations for law changes.

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