How the Unpaid Utility Bills Will Instead Come to You

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Virginia households have fallen behind on their electricity, natural gas, and water service bills in the COVID-19 recession, with no fear (yet) of being disconnected. The moratorium on disconnections is now scheduled to end October 5.

When the dust settles and the unpaid bills come due, they are likely to come to all of the other customers of the various utilities in the form of extra monthly charges. In the case of Dominion Energy Virginia, the General Assembly is considering a second way to make its customers pay.

The General Assembly now in special session might act to extend that moratorium until the end of the official COVID-19 emergency orders. But it is not waiting for that to go after the larger problem: How to relive pressure on those families and how to maintain the economic health of these vital utilities when they are owed hundreds of millions and perhaps a billion dollars.

Those numbers are not unrealistic. The State Corporation Commission reported in August that as of June 30 the various companies it regulates were already owed $184 million, and the three months since then included the hottest part of the summer. It is conceivable the official pandemic emergency will extend deep into 2021, picking up winter billing.

Under orders from the SCC, but also on their own initiative, the companies have been instituting payment plans for the struggling customers, and the General Assembly is also likely to dictate some of the terms of those, including precluding interest or penalties. If the deep recession continues, many customers will not be able to catch up, even over a long payment period.

A similar crisis is brewing in the housing market, with the government preventing evictions or foreclosures on tenants or borrowers crushed by the recession. In that case, there is no easy way for the government to spread the cost to other tenants or borrowers directly. It is different with the regulated utilities.

Here is the direct approach the state might take to cover the unpaid bills with money from paying customers. It could add a monthly charge, perhaps a set amount or a set amount per unit of service, through what is called a “rate adjustment clause.” That would be one more added line to your monthly bill. Dominion or Appalachian Power Company bills are already festooned with such charges, all but invisible.

That approach comes in Senate Bill 5118. The link is to the version which has already passed the Virginia Senate but not the House of Delegates.

“The Commission shall allow for the timely recovery of bad debt obligations, reasonable late payment fees suspended, and prudently incurred implementation costs resulting from an (Emergency Debt Retirement Plan) for jurisdictional utilities, including through a rate adjustment clause or through base rates,” it reads. “Shall” is the key word as it directs the SCC to do this if the utility has asked.

The indirect approach being considered by the legislators would only work with Dominion, which will surely have the largest amount of accounts receivable outstanding. Since its last rate review in 2015 the company’s accounting indicates it has earned perhaps $500 million or more in profits above its authorized level of earnings. Governor Ralph Northam has proposed taking $320 million of that to cover unpaid bills owed Dominion.

The problem is that money is not just sitting there for the taking. State law already dictates two possible uses for it, both of them of benefit to all Dominion customers. In fact, the same legislature set those rules for how to spend it, which it now may abandon.

Dominion, as you may recall, is under orders from the legislature to conduct a massive building campaign for solar collectors, offshore wind turbines and battery storage. The $500 million is to be invested in that energy transformation. That would benefit us because otherwise customers will pay for that building program with even larger (you guessed it) rate adjustment clauses for years to come.

If not used that way, the money would be refunded to customers, lowering bills a bit.

One way or the other, that $500 million in excess profits, if confirmed by an audit next year, was going to benefit the customers who paid it in. Now most of it may benefit the customers who didn’t pay. All three of the possible approaches benefit Dominion and its shareholders.

Only Dominion has that pot of extra cash for the state to raid. The go-to move for the other major utilities, including natural gas companies and even the rural electric cooperatives, will be to ask the SCC to impose a new rate adjustment charge to collect their uncollectable back bills.

It didn’t take a degree in economics to understand that eventually there would be consequences if people were allowed to stay in their homes without paying, or allowed to keep their power, water, and gas on without paying. The bills could eventually come to us either as taxpayers or as customers of the same entities.

In its order to end the bill moratorium on October 5, the Commission urged the General Assembly to use tax funds to cover the bills, or the special funding Congress provided for COVID response.

Using existing tax revenue for this purpose means less to spend somewhere else. Raising new taxes for this purpose would have political risk. Burying the cost on everybody’s monthly bills for years to come offers political cover, and it seems the General Assembly is taking that route.

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Five Steps to Guide Transportation Planning and Spending During the Pandemic

This analysis discusses a five-step approach to understanding and addressing the new challenges that preceded, and now are intensified by, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic events of this year. The way that we react to them will be crucial to the nation’s transportation capabilities in the future. The COVID-19 pandemic and the governmental responses to it have reduced overall travel activity and shifted demand to different locations and modes of travel. Demand has shifted away from any form of concentration of passengers in vehicles and terminals, or even at potential destinations of travel. There has been a major shift to relying on household vehicles for any travel demand since there is less personal exposure to others.

  1. Call a moratorium on all expansion-based transportation investments—for the obvious reasons.

While being willing to accept some absolutely clear and verifiable capacity needs, we must place a hold on transportation expansion investments, at least until the dust settles. The possible exceptions foreseen could be expansions that have already begun and need to be finished, such as bridge expansions, truck access to ports, storm responses, or natural disasters.

Even before the pandemic and recession—back in the fall of 2019—it was clear to transportation analysts that we were in the most difficult period in our professional lifetimes in which to forecast demand. The central issues were linked to technological and demographic changes.

The focal technological questions were examining the speed of arrival and the ultimate characteristics of autonomous vehicles (AV). Forecasts for the arrival of full-scale AV were anywhere from five to 50 years, and expectations were for a surge in travel volume or a decline. Who would own the vehicles: Hertz, Uber, General Motors, individuals, or governments? The new tech communication tools disrupted the taxi world, transit, and other traditional options.

There were also other questions. Demographically, the central challenge was where would the future skilled workforce come from? Would the retirement-age Baby Boomers work longer? Would the country import workers? Would we hope for the best? Shifting from child-centered travel households to an elder-care focus was on the horizon. Instead of you taking your kids to the dentist, they’d be taking you.

Travel growth that had been close to zero or negative during the 2007-2009 recession experienced a brief recovery but dwindled by 2018. Highway miles of travel grew by a meager 0.8% in 2019. Growth rates for the upcoming decade (2020-2030) were forecast at 1% a year. The only real growth sector was expected to be aviation.

Then COVID-19 hit and all of those very limited forecasts became almost foolishly optimistic. Travel by all modes decreased dramatically through the first half of 2020 and prospects for recovery and growth were not much more than conjecture. Modes that required certain levels of demand to justify services—rail, air, charter buses, cruise ships—sharply curtailed capacity.

At present, it is impossible to answer “when will we be back to the travel levels of 2019?” Without falling into talk of a “new normal,” at a minimum we can see uncertainty for the next several years. At the same time, fuel taxes, sales taxes, and general revenues that fund federal state and local transportation needs have shown massive declines.

With the present dominated by uncertainty in all aspects of travel demand, any proposals for capacity increases have zero credibility. Any modal option predicated on responding to congestion must be suspect. Thus, a hiatus, or maybe a moratorium, on building new facilities is the appropriate policy response. Auto travel, requiring no more than one person to justify a trip, has shown greater recovery.

  1. Focus on improving the condition of the existing systemnot just restoring, but modernizing.

At this time, the main focus could be the reconstruction of the Interstate Highway System, improving operations to assure safety and environmental enhancements, and rehabilitating— for safety purposes—existing  rail transit systems.

In this environment, calls for transportation infrastructure spending need wary—even scrupulous—examination. Even in areas seeing substantial population growth, any investments based on forecasted travel growth must be suspect. Many projects require not just years but decades to develop, and proponents bear the burden of providing plausible situations for future dates that can justify the investment.

In this period, the wise public policy course is to recognize the massive backlog of transportation investment we already have. Bringing our transportation systems up to appropriate standards and investing in them should be the starting point for programs.

The National Highway System needs on the order of a trillion dollars in investments to restore and modernize the system. Looking at the physical condition of the Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago transit systems, restoration investment is a matter of safety as well as efficiency. The more modern transit systems developed in our timeWashington, D.C., and San Franciscohave already reached the level of massive needs for rehabilitation. All in all, the major transit systems could similarly identify ”trillion” as the basic investment level.

Certainly, no transit systemgiven six years of declining ridership and now the very serious health concerns of rail and bus ridersshould be expanding while its massive rehabilitation needs are unmet. A national moratorium on the expansion of services along with efforts to rebuild, renovate and modernize should be the basic national infrastructure theme. 

  1. Assess ways to determine the role and prospective impacts of Work at Home trendswhich already exceeded transit in share in 2017.

In addition to the above challenges, we have also seen a new world emerging regarding working at home. Working at Home (WAH), has been the fastest-growing “mode” of travel to work in America since 1970, growing at twice the rate of worker growth. In 2017, more than 5% of “commuters” worked at home, surpassing the percentage of people across the country that used mass transit. Working at home now has the third-highest share of work travel, trailing only car-pooling at 9%, and driving alone at more than 76%.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic coincided with the ongoing trend of a massive increase in workers shifting to working at home. Many of those workers, engaged in this forced experiment, have found working at home an acceptable or even attractive option, providing both time and cost savings. Perhaps more significantly, employers are finding it to be an effective tool with limited near-term losses in productivity and prospective cost savings in office size and location.

The evolution of working at home in the longer term will depend on current unknowns, such as which activities can be justified in terms of sustained productivity over time, and how team-oriented activities and the acculturation of new employees can be structured.

Heretofore, the great majority of those working at home were typically individuals conducting personal service businesses, whether incorporated or not. Instead of writing the next great American novel, they were creating the next great American software program. Those working in traditional activities that are not always computer-based, such as childcare, also represented a significant share of “employees” working at home.

The immense power of today’s home-based tools—smartphones, computers, printers, scanners, and the internet— empowered many small businesses. However, since 2010, and certainly now in the COVID-19 environment, large private corporations have been the major growth source. It is unrealistic for everyone who is working at home to continue after the pandemic eases, but there is a new tolerance—even acceptance for it—among employees and management.

Working at home doesn’t generate greenhouse gases, consumes far fewer resources, and does not require significant public investments in infrastructure. Lower greenhouse gas emissions, decreased traffic congestion, and lower financial costs—what’s not to like?

The entire workforce structure has been moving towards a more flexible environment in this century, accommodating the needs of the hard-to-attract skilled workforce and recognizing the increasing influence of working women, who are now close to half of the workforce. At the very least, we can expect an environment where a large segment of the workforce operates on a split workweek at home and a meeting place—perhaps two or three days on each side. Recognizing that roughly two-thirds of workers live in a household with other workers, this opens many opportunities for shifting residence locations that are focused more on access to other things people value rather than job access. In the past this has permitted people to optimize their housing or other non-work-related preferences, resulting in moving farther from the occasional workplace. In many cases, our massive communications connections will continue to increasingly permit the work-from-anywhere workforce to locate wherever they find it attractive—a beach, a forest, a mountaintop. 

  1. Focus further on shifting transportation funding to be responsive to the accessibility needs of lower-income populations.

In many cases, that means buses, vans, and jitneys. Anything on rails would be exceptional.

The skilled workforce will continue to be in demand wherever they choose to locate. Often their only work needs will be the internet, a highway, and maybe a large commercial airport. Most of their activities are not resource-based.

Many of the key work-related transportation questions will concern the less skilled, who typically need access to physical workplaces. These can be resource-based, involving minerals, farms, rivers, and ports in rural areas. More typically they can be floorspace-based, requiring commuting trips to various structures such as factories, warehouses, hospitals, shopping centers, hotels, restaurants, and construction sites to provide services. In some cases, these are in the center of the metro area, but more frequently they are located in suburban work locations. Serving these businesses’ needs will require a far more flexible structure of public and private transportation services.

One of the great unrecognized advances in American transportation that benefits this population has been the increased longevity of the vehicle fleet, now at an average age of more than 10 years. Very serviceable, low-cost used vehicles are a major transportation benefit to lower-income workers. Both Hispanic and African American workers have made substantial gains in auto ownership, expanding their access to a broader reach of job opportunities.

Accessibility research in our major metro areas shows that in 30 minutes of travel, automobiles can reach approximately 30 times the number of jobs that can be reached by mass transit. Even among the best transit systems, such as Washington, D.C., cars can reach 90% of all the jobs in the region in 60 minutes, whereas transit can reach fewer than 11%. 

  1. Emphasize a strong focus on private sector solutions to respond to needs in this transportation world—utilizing the disruptive technologies that can serve users’  needs rapidly.

Rural connectivity will be a major concern. As jobs move farther into the suburbs, they become more accessible to rural workers, However, with the exception of resource-based employment, developing self-sustaining economic centers in rural areas has been very challenging. The tourism connection and the more recent tendency of retirees to locate near amenities like national parks will prove to be a major potential resource. One of the “resource-based” industries in rural areas will likely be providing services to newcomers to the area, as retirees seek services, health care, and attractive lifestyle amenities.

The almost-standard response over the years to these sorts of challenges has been to generate ideas for fleets of carpools, vanpools, and small buses. Frequently, this really is the answer, but it has suffered due to public constraints. To fully succeed, it will require eliminating or reducing the regulation of private vehicles that “compete” with transit. This may require action by governments to assist prospective operators by restructuring the many agencies that operate their many separate programs to facilitate new private initiatives.

All of the necessary responses seem to suggest small, focused entrepreneurial efforts rather than massive public programs. Private-sector roles in both highways and transit represent the real potential here. If the private sector, as part of a public-private partnership (P3), saw opportunities to invest in toll facilities and van-style services where they were willing to risk their money and become the great experimenters in new services, many “disruptive” new Uber- and Lyft-like experiments could emerge. Establishing a new program, or shifting public-private partnership programs to serve the capital needs of van- and bus-based start-ups along with traditional reconstruction needs could be effective.

The bus or vanpool approach has taken many forms:

  • Private firms have developed their own bus fleets to deliver their employees. Microsoft has the third-largest fleet of buses in Seattle;
  • Some companies have helped employees to operate a vehicle, owned by the employee or provided by the firm that can serve as a vanpool for groups of employees, given preferential parking, etc;
  • The intercity bus industry has developed an important off-shoot of charter buses that deliver people to major job centers;
  • In some cases, religious institutions have developed van systems to serve their members in daycare and other services; and
  • Entrepreneurial opportunities, functioning like airport vans as something of a model, could emerge to serve large centers. It might be a great time to experiment with the many parked airport and hotel shuttles.

These are areas in which public, private, institutional, and market-based approaches can all play far greater roles than they have succeeded in doing so far. One reality is to establish how far they have succeeded and in what roles. It would not be surprising that the airport auto rental bus fleets and the airport-to-hotel fleets have a market role comparable in scale to public transit in many areas, which a Reason Foundation policy study pointed out more than two decades ago.

The lack of information on the functions the various systems perform obscures their potential to expand their services. We do not know how many fleets of vans/buses/vehicles there are and what they accomplish, how many passengers they carry, how far they travel, and at what cost. The new Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey (VIUS) being re-established by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the Census Bureau has the potential to address this issue. The transportation statistical system has a unique universe to sample to gain this information: the vehicle registration files of the states. The VIUS originally addressed only trucks and is now being redesigned to expand observations to further understand the vehicle fleets that serve the nation.

An important place to start an inventory would be in the federal aid programs that support local agencies assisting the elderly and disadvantaged. There are multiple programs, within the U.S. Department of Transportation and other agencies, among them the Section 5310 paratransit programs and Section 5311 rural and small city assistance programs under the Federal Transit Administration. These programs have been criticized as over-organized and over-scheduled, requiring previous day reservations and long wait times rather than their modern private counterparts serving on-demand travel. They can be modernized and expanded to reach low-income workers.

The new concepts of micro-mobility and Mobility as a Service (MaaS) are potentially helpful to van-based systems in the sense that more real-time information and rapid real-time responses could energize a new approach to transportation services. It would be delightful to believe that our transportation systems and public policies are up to these very serious challenges and from it more effective systems can emerge.

This commentary was originally published on August 19, 2020 by the Reason Foundation.  

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Uh Oh … Another Bad Year for VRS Investments

The Virginia Retirement System earned 1.4% on its $82 billion investment portfolio in fiscal year 2020, far below the long-term average of 6.75% the VRS Board of Trustees assumes that it will earn over the next 30 years, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

VRS investments have returned 5.2% over the past three years, and 4.8% over the past five years, but the 10-year record looks better at 8.1%.

One year’s poor results are not a cause for concern. Markets go up and down, and so do investment returns. The long-term picture is worrisome, however. The ten-year VRS record reflects investment results during one of the great bull markets in both stocks and bonds in U.S. history. Many analysts expect returns in future years to be lower as the Federal Reserve Bank pursues a near-zero interest rate policy to goose the U.S. economy through the COVID-19 crisis and aftermath. There is no chance that investment performance over the next 10 years will replicate that of the past 10 years. To the contrary, if inflation picks up, as the Fed is aiming for, that could depress stock market multiples and stock prices.

If future VRS investment returns lag the actuarial projection of 6.75% yearly, state and local governments will have to make up the difference through bigger contributions to the retirement funds. “The lower returns will eventually require greater general fund [budget] obligations,” Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne told the RTD September 16.

Bacon’s bottom line: How many billions might state and local governments have to cough up? A year ago, the VRS calculated that unfunded liabilities for the pension plan for state employees amounted to $6.3 billion, while unfunded liabilities for the teacher plan was $12.8 billion. Given the sub-par investment performance this year, total unfunded liabilities could exceed $20 billion in VRS’s next recalculation of the numbers.

It’s not clear to me when that bill will come due. I haven’t seen any reporting on the point at which VRS begins drawing down its assets to pay retirement benefits, or the point at which the fund runs out.

The Social Security Administration publishes an annual update on the outlook for the $2.8 trillion Old Age and Survivors (OASI) Trust Fund. In its most recent forecast, the OASI fund will run out in 2034 and, barring changes in legislation, ongoing tax income will be sufficient to pay only 76% of scheduled benefits. What are the comparable numbers for the VRS — how long will the $82 billion in assets last?

I don’t know of anyone asking the question. Certainly, the general public doesn’t have a clue. I’ll bet most members of the General Assembly don’t either, even as they debate legislation that would make it easier for public employees to organize, negotiate for better benefits. and drive up future obligations.

This commentary originally appeared on September 17, 2020 in the online Bacon’s Rebellion.

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Could the Loudoun Drowning Tragedy Have Been Avoided?

A decade ago, I wrote a column in this space regarding a quality assurance process for professional architecture, engineering, surveying, mapping and related services codified in Federal law, and most state laws, including Virginia.

The “Brooks Act”, the Federal law enacted in 1972, codified a process that provides for the selection of firms to perform these services on the basis of the competence, qualification, background and track record of competing firms, not the lowest bid. The qualifications based selection (QBS) process is also endorsed by the American Bar Association in its Model Procurement Code for State and Local Government and most states, including Virginia, have enacted “mini-Brooks Acts”. Virginia’s QBS process is found in Section 2.2-4301 of the Code of Virginia.

All 50 states license architects, engineers, and surveyors. While there is a trend toward occupational licensing reform in many states to eliminate schemes that fail to serve the public interest or restrain or limit competition and market entry, the licensing of design professionals as a means of protecting public health, safety, and welfare has largely and wisely been exempt from this movement.

News of the tragic drowning of a Loudoun County teenager, and the shortcomings of 911 systems, raises questions about decisions made in the commonwealth about implementing state-of-the-art technology to assure prompt, accurate emergency response.

Problems with 911 systems in the commonwealth are not new. Inaccuracies in the Fairfax system made national news more than five years ago. A program known as the Virginia Geographic Information Network (VGIN) has been working to upgrade the systems across the state and in individual localities. This enhanced or E-911 is financed through a tax on monthly telephone bills and Federal funds. As of July 1, VGIN was transferred from the Virginia Information Technology Administration (VITA) to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

The Loudoun incident has led to recommendations for upgrades to the E- 911 system to better locate cell phone calls and utilize better mapping.

The foundation for such maps is created through a complex process known as photogrammetry – the science of making measurements and maps from precision aerial photographs. VGIN regularly contracts for statewide aerial photography and the processing of these image into accurate maps, using the aforementioned funding sources. Regrettably, VGIN does not follow the commonwealth’s QBS law. Nor does VGIN require a licensed professional surveyor or surveyor photogrammetrist to be in responsible charge of such service contracts. The Virginia Association of Surveyors and other professional organizations have long promoted QBS and professional licensing for the VGIN work, known as the Virginia Base Map Program, recently renamed 9-1-1 and Geospatial Services. Notwithstanding these organizations’ advocacy, and an opinion by Virginia’s Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, Certified Interior Designers and Landscape Architects (APELSCIDLA Board), VGIN has consistently rejected both licensing and QBS in its mapping contracts.

An effort to close this loophole was presented to the General Assembly in 2017. HB 2145 by then-Delegate Jim LeMunyon and SB 1572 by Senator Bill Stanley would have required that a licensed professional oversee all photogrammetric mapping projects in Virginia, which would have brought efforts such as the Virginia Base Map Program under the state’s QBS process. The legislation was approved in the House of Delegates, but died in a Senate committee.

Competence, qualifications and quality are important; more important than price. Just as a poorly designed dam can burst, subjecting the state to huge claims, so too can a poorly planned or executed map unleash a flood of problems, creating an impediment to the expeditious completion of a government project, causing substantial loss of time and money, and jeopardizing the public safety. Like a well made dam, a high quality map will stand the test of time and will ensure that the government can proceed with its design, construction, resource planning or E-911 project based on complete, accurate, and reliable data.

It may just save lives.

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Economic and Job Recovery? Not the Special Session’s Focus

With the Virginia General Assembly’s “Cops and COVID” special session moving into its third week, it seems likely to impede rather than assist the state’s economic recovery from the pandemic. It may also greatly expand COVID-19’s financial burdens in the years to come.

The highly publicized issues of unpaid rents and utility bills, threatening tens of thousands with choices between eviction, disconnection, or years of additional debt, are clearly related to un- and under-employment from the COVID-19 recession. But getting people back to work does not seem the top priority for legislators.

The original stated purposes for the session starting August 18 were to amend the state budget in response to the recession, and make other adjustments responding to the viral disease. Deadly confrontations between police and Black suspects in several American cities, and the violent response, added police and judicial reform issues to the agenda.

The 270 bills introduced by legislators (so far) reach far beyond those issues. Only one election-rules bill has passed both chambers so far, but 55 others have passed at least one chamber. This update focuses on some of those that will impact employers or taxpayers. There is mainly bad news on both fronts.

Both chambers are dominated by Democrats. So far, repeating the pattern from the regular session that ended in March, the Virginia Senate is refusing to adopt as “progressive” an agenda as the more numerous House. But it remains possible the General Assembly will:

  • Create a state mandate for employer-paid sick leave, either through legislation or by inserting it into the budget bill. Legislating in the budget is getting to be routine, sadly.
  • Extend protection and the payback period for those behind on their rents and utility bills, giving debtors from six to 24 month to pay. The 24-month period extends into 2023.
  • Expand state authority to probe and punish alleged price gouging, not just at the point of sale but throughout the manufacturing and supply chain.
  • Create a presumption that certain employees who get severe cases of COVID-19 were infected at work and deserve compensation, with the employer (public or private) footing the bill.

Something else that could impact any business or service operation dealing with the public:

  • Emergency orders from the Governor, which may also be in force for months or years to come, may soon carry the risk of a $500 fine. Current law sets the minimum punishment as a class one misdemeanor, ridiculous for minor infractions and thus seldom imposed. Fines are easy and may prove commonplace, and produce revenue that governments need right now.

The worst news for the economic climate involves a failed idea. One of the key measures that all employers, including non-profits, sought from the special session was some protection against lawsuits over COVID if they are making good faith efforts to protect their employees, clients, and customers. Both House and Senate versions of that idea – which has passed in some form in many states – were withdrawn last week.

The House version of the bill had been amended into a form where the business community saw it as promoting litigation. Union efforts for similar changes led to the demise of the Senate bill. Only the nursing home industry still has active legislation creating some narrow immunity from lawsuit.

The many other states which have addressed this issue may see quicker and easier economic recoveries. Fear of lawsuits is playing a major role in many Virginia business operations remaining closed or limited.

One of the deepest and longest lasting financial impacts will come from the response, or lack of response, to the rent and utility debts. Both the state and the federal governments, with bipartisan support, have been quick to prohibit evictions or utility disconnections. But the answer to the inevitable question of who ultimately pays and when has been slow.

It is likely real estate evictions and foreclosures will be restricted into the spring of 2021, and legislation pending would prevent eviction at that point but instead require 12 or even 24-month repayment plans. Where the money will come from for those, how people will start paying even higher rents if the economy is still mired in recession in 2021, is never discussed.

On the utility side of things, prohibitions on disconnections and mandatory long-term payment plans are also proposed. But this past week reports surfaced that Governor Ralph Northam wanted to direct the State Corporation Commission to use any excess profits held by Dominion Energy Virginia to cover unpaid bills. Potentially more than $300 million, money that might otherwise be future refunds for all Dominion customers, could be diverted to cover the bills of those fallen behind.

It won’t be enough money, probably not enough even for Dominion’s late payers. Every utility – electricity, natural gas, water, and sewer – has seen its accounts receivable explode. Families which are able to get back on track will again be paying extra per month to cover their debts, leaving less for other needs or desires. The potential to further retard economic recovery is obvious.

Likewise, any decision to offer wage replacement, medical coverage, disability status or death benefits to COVID-19 sufferers means higher workers compensation insurance premiums for their employers.

The legislation pending is limited to health care workers, fire, police and other first responders, and school personnel. Many but not all of those will be government employees, putting the bill on taxpayers directly. If workers file a claim, their employer can seek to establish the disease was not contracted at work. Proving that may be impossible.

If approved, and it has broad and bipartisan support, do not expect coverage to remain limited to those few employment categories for long. A grocery store worker or Internet installer has just as strong a claim that the job put them at risk for this virus. Eventually this will cover everyone. As with the economic waves from the unpaid rents and utility bills, the costs will reach us all.

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