Dominion contribution-limit bills killed by lawmakers
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — On a bipartisan basis, Virginia lawmakers have quickly dispensed with this year’s key legislative efforts to rein in campaign cash from Richmond-based lobbying powerhouse Dominion Energy.
A House subcommittee on Wednesday struck down two campaign finance reform measures aimed at the energy company’s Virginia electric utility and certain other regulated entities. A Senate committee defeated two other related bills a day earlier.
Scrutiny of Dominion’s influence through campaign contributions has become a perennial issue in recent years due to growing concern over the company’s ability to push through legislation favorable to its own interests.
Republican Del. Lee Ware, who sponsored a bill aimed specifically at Dominion and Appalachian Power, told his colleagues Wednesday that the General Assembly has allowed the two companies to circumvent regulatory oversight “in exchange for robust contributions to legislators’ campaign committees.”
Dominion says its donations are transparent, and the company wants campaign finance laws to apply equally to all.
“This is banning political speech by two corporations. And when you do that, you elevate the speech of others,” lobbyist Chris Nolen of the law firm McGuireWoods said Wednesday, as he represented the company and argued against the bill.
Ron Jefferson, of Appalachian Power, also spoke against Ware’s measure. In making a point that Virginia shouldn’t single out certain companies for limits, he noted that Virginia’s campaign finance laws are an outlier among the 11 states where parent company American Electric Power operates.
“Seven of them prohibit contributions from any corporation. Three of them have limits on all corporations. And then we have Virginia that has unlimited for everyone,” he said.
Ware’s measure was killed on an 8-0 bipartisan vote.
A broader measure sponsored by Democratic Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler that would prohibit contributions from any public service corporation was defeated 6-2.
In the Senate, Democratic and Republican members of a committee defeated bills Tuesday afternoon from Democrat Chap Petersen and Republican Richard Stuart, who like Ware argued that Dominion wields outsize influence through its political giving.
“We have been substituting our own judgment for the State Corporation Commission,” Stuart said of the entity that regulates utilities. “And then we accept donations from public utilities in order to, at least from outward appearances, influence how we would vote on these bills.”
Both hearings at times featured a somewhat contentious back-and-forth between the bill sponsors and committee members.
On Tuesday, committee member Lionell Spruill, a Democrat, used a sexual vulgarity to suggest that Petersen was overly focused on Dominion or perhaps had a personal problem with the company.
“I don’t have any animosity towards anybody,” Petersen responded.
Clean Virginia, an advocacy group founded by Charlottesville investor and Democratic donor Michael Bills to counter Dominion’s influence, noted that many of the lawmakers who voted to kill the bills had taken hefty Dominion donations. Those who voted against the measures had accepted over $500,000 from the company in the past year, according to an accounting by the group, which also gives substantial sums.
“Each lawmaker that continues to oppose common-sense good governance and rate reform is failing families and small businesses across the Commonwealth,” the group’s executive director, Brennan Gilmore, said in a statement.
The defeat of the bills likely means the issue is dead for the year.
Stuart, Petersen and Ware told reporters last month that Gov. Glenn Youngkin had conveyed his support for their measures. He did not weigh in publicly, however.
Virginia has some of the country’s loosest campaign finance laws, and lawmakers have generally shown little appetite for reforming them. Also killed during Wednesday’s House subcommittee meeting were two identical bills that would have prohibited the personal use of campaign funds, such as putting donations toward a home mortgage, clothing purchase or country club membership.
Similar bills have passed the House before, including one last year that passed unanimously, one of the sponsors, Del. Marcus Simon, noted. There was no substantive discussion among subcommittee members before Republican Del. Wren Williams motioned that the bills be passed by indefinitely. Four other Republicans joined Williams in voting to do so.
A spokesman for the House GOP caucus didn’t respond to a text request for comment on the change in position.
A Senate bill that would prohibit the personal use of campaign money is still alive.