Youngkin Thwarts Dominion Push for Higher Profit

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A Virginia House of Delegates committee has rebuffed Dominion Energy Virginia’s bid to change the rules on how much profit it can earn, setting up a confrontation with the utility and its allies in the Virginia Senate.  Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) reportedly encouraged the delegates to take the step and sent a member of his cabinet to speak in favor of watering down Dominion’s bill.

When they were introduced a few weeks back, House Bill 1770 and Senate Bill 1265 were identical.  It was probably Dominion’s game plan to have them remain identical as they passed in their houses of introduction by the February 7 deadline.  Now the bills likely to pass have morphed into very different substitutes, with all observers now expecting a high stakes joint conference committee.

The House substitute, approved by the House Commerce and Energy Committee Thursday afternoon, removes most of the original bill.  Now it merely changes the schedule for rate cases and requires additional scrutiny by the State Corporation Commission before fossil fuel generation plants are closed.   The sections dictating a higher profit margin are gone.

The provision that might prevent the future closing of a coal or natural gas plant, however, was sufficient to lose the vote of every Democrat on the committee.  They are fully committed to restoring the State Corporation Commission’s independence over ratemaking, but still want to dictate by law the elimination of fossil fuels.

The Senate substitute remains the bill Dominion wants. It also faces a full Senate vote next week.  Several of the original elements are stripped out, including the language about additional SCC oversight before plants are closed.  But the heart of the bill remains a new formula for setting Dominion’s return on equity (ROE), its annual profit on capital.  It also includes a potentially expensive approach to retiring Dominion’s huge bill for fuel, a solution that will cost consumers years and years of interest payments.

It is important to note the House committee didn’t kill the bill, but instead amended it and sent a clear message the poker game was just beginning.  It is too soon to assume Dominion’s plans are dashed.

Before the House acted, two of the House committee members asked the SCC to produce some cost estimates on Dominion’s proposal for a higher return on equity.  The SCC letter to the two delegates estimated the utility would collect another $2 billion from customers by 2040 under the higher ROE  calculation.

Since 2007, Virginia has been the only state that dictates to its regulatory commission a formula for profit based on the profit margins of peer utilities.  Current law allows the SCC to determine which peer utilities to use, which has produced authorized profit margins lower than the average of them all.  The proposed bill dictates the SCC must use them all.   Had that happened in the last review, it would have moved the profit margin from 9.35 percent up to 10.07 percent, the SCC reported.

Allowing the regulatory bodies of other states to dictate Virginia utility profit margins is really no different than allowing the California Air Resources Board to dictate Virginia’s auto emissions standards. In both cases the legislature has consciously decided to surrender Virginia autonomy out of state.

The House substitute that removed the return on equity change drew supporting testimony from Travis Voyles, Youngkin’s Acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources.  He cited the Governor’s 2022 Energy Plan document calling for increased SCC independence on ratemaking. It also called for greater caution before reliable and dispatchable power plants are closed.

One of Attorney General Jason Miyares’ (R) assistants, a litigator in the Consumer Counsel Division, also spoke up for the bill, calling it pro-consumer.  Neither elected official had any staff members testify during the meetings on the Senate version of the bill, but their advocacy now may put some pressure on Republicans in that body.

Credit for derailing the bill in the House is also due to a very aggressive lobbying effort by a coalition of liberal and environmental groups, backed by serious investments in direct mail and digital advertising.

The coalition also backed a pair of bills which add a strong restatement of SCC’s “sole discretion” to lower or raise base utility rates, despite all the handcuffs that now exist elsewhere in the law.   Gone would be the existing requirement that the utility has to earn excess profits in two review cycles before a rate cut can happen.

Those bills, House Bill 1604 and Senate Bill 1321 were amended into substitutes, but all the extra verbiage may not have weakened them.  The spokesmen for Youngkin and Miyares also endorsed the House version in committee Thursday.  The Senate version was approved 40-0 on February 2.  Dominion did not oppose them but was probably assuming its own bill (limiting SCC authority in other ways) would also pass.  That is now in doubt.

And there was yet another bill Youngkin’s endorsement helped push out of the committee, House Bill 2267, which restores SCC independence on a different aspect of ratemaking. The bill seeks to give the SCC control over when a utility uses a rate adjustment clause to pay for a project rather than base rates.

Current law encourages utilities to create stand-alone rate adjustment clauses (RACs) for specific purposes or projects, such as the offshore wind development.  RACs are outside of and additive to base rates and are charged separately, even if base rates might be sufficient to cover the project.  The bill patron complained in particular about the games Dominion has been playing with an on again, off again RAC to pay its regional carbon taxes.  Reducing the number of RACs was another element of Youngkin’s energy plan.

Like the ROE formula, the process of creating multiple RACs goes back to 2007 and its major revisions to Virginia’s regulatory approach.  The unanimous House committee vote for the bill to end the RAC racket is earthshaking in its implications, but as noted in this column and a previous one, this game is just starting.  Even if the Assembly reaches compromise on all these interlocking provisions, then Governor Youngkin gets his turn to propose amendments to a reconvened session in April.

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Will RGGI Tax Return to Your Dominion Bill?

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The on again, off again, direct tax on your Dominion Energy Virginia bills to pay for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) may be on again.  If you feel like you are watching a shell game and just cannot find the pea, that is intentional.

In its sales pitch for its latest effort to create a more favorable regulatory environment, Dominion Energy Virginia is touting its proposal to take several of its existing stand-alone rate adjustment charges (RACs) and roll them into its base rates.   The claim is that will save ratepayers $350 million.

Don’t plan on spending that money.  Dominion will take it right back to cover the cost of all the carbon emissions allowances it continues to buy every quarter so it can operate its coal, natural gas, oil and biomass generators.  And, frankly, the move with the RACs really saves you nothing, but more on that in another column.

Virginia joined the RGGI interstate compact two years ago, with Dominion being the largest purchaser in the state of the mandatory emissions allowances.  The money collected by the carbon tax has now passed the half a billion dollar mark. Governor Glenn Youngkin (R) is working through the slow regulatory process to end Virginia’s participation as of the end of this year, when the current RGGI contract period ends.

As part of that regulatory process, another major public comment period is now open, lasting until March 31.  The portal to file comments electronically is here.  A first round of comments was heavily dominated by individuals or groups seeking to maintain the tax and arguing that RGGI has been extremely effective in reducing CO2 emissions that otherwise will melt the polar regions, flood Virginia up to Richmond and kill thousands in heat waves.

All indications are the current Air Pollution Control Board, with a majority appointed by Youngkin, is committed to repeal of the underlying regulation.  Nevertheless, a stronger showing of comments from individuals or groups skeptical that RGGI is doing anybody any good at all would be useful.  Polls indicate that when RGGI is understood to be just a carbon tax, voters don’t like it, including plenty of Democrats.

 Tactically, that case is easier to make when the RGGI tax shows up as an individual line item on the monthly bills for Dominion, the state’s dominant electric utility with 2.6 million customer accounts.  It was on their bills from September 2021 until September 2022, when Dominion got regulator permission to remove it and promised to cover the cost within its base rates instead.

 That didn’t mean customers would not pay it, as was explained here.  But they wouldn’t be able to find it on their bills. Late in 2022, Dominion quietly reversed course and filed with the State Corporation Commission seeking to reinstate the direct, separate charge.  Suddenly the utility wants to make the cost visible again.  The petition is actually just a continuation of the case it filed to remove the charge, a step the SCC just approved in June.

 The RGGI tax removed from bills in September was $2.39 for every 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage, a fixed amount for all classes of customers.  The petition now pending would increase that to $4.64 on every 1,000 kilowatt hours, much of the money to cover the period when no tax was collected.  Dominion reports that by the end of 2023 it will have spent about $640 million on RGGI allowances.  The earlier tax collected only $84 million.

 Dominion is not the only Virginia energy producer that needs to buy RGGI allowances to operate, and at current rates Virginia may have collected closer to $800 million in tax by the end of this year.  The way the RGGI auction works, producers in other states could be buying Virginia credits and vice versa.

The RGGI tax is likely to remain on Dominion customer bills for a period of time after Virginia leaves the compact, until the utility recovers its costs in full, including carrying charges.  It is, however, hardly a done deal that repeal will happen.  Advocates for RGGI are expected to sue if and when the Air Board decides to leave RGGI, arguing only the General Assembly can do that.

It will be a fascinating legal dispute. There has been something of a dance underway for years as both Democrats and Republicans have taken both sides of the argument as to whether it was a legislative or regulatory prerogative.

Virginia’s relationship with RGGI actually started under Governor Terry McAuliffe (D), who initiated a regulatory process to join the compact.  He first promised that the tax revenue from allowance sales would be returned to ratepayers.  That promise had disappeared by the time a final regulation was adopted under Governor Ralph Northam (D) in 2019.

But implementation of the regulation was blocked by legislative Republicans, then with sufficient votes to impose their will in budget language.  Democrats at the time complained of legislative overreach by the Republicans.  Democrats routinely voted no on GOP bills that would have required legislative approval to join RGGI, bills which passed and were then vetoed by McAuliffe and Northam.

 The 2019 election gave Democrats full control of both legislative houses, and they promptly passed legislation of their own on the issue.  The bill clearly dictated several changes to the regulation, which already existed, and directed how the revenue would be spent.  But – perhaps cognizant of their earlier position that the Republicans were overreaching – Democrats merely “authorized” the Northam Administration to proceed and join.

 Adding to the argument there was no mandate was a separate section of the law which opened with:

 If the Governor seeks to include the Commonwealth as a full participant in RGGI or another carbon trading program with an open auction of allowances, or if the Department implements the final carbon trading regulation as approved by the Board on April 19, 2019… (emphasis added.)

In Virginia, when the legislature is making its directions to the executive branch clear, the operative word is “shall,” never “if.”  The door was left open for a future Air Board to amend or repeal the action of the previous board, as is the normal course of business.

Posted in Economy, Energy, Government Reform | Comments Off on Will RGGI Tax Return to Your Dominion Bill?

Five Reasons For Supporting Youngkin Tax Plan

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Last week, the Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates passed a $1 billion package of tax cuts for individuals and businesses, the centerpiece of Governor Glenn Youngkin’s economic agenda. But Democrats, who have a two-seat majority in the state Senate, have a laundry list of policies and programs they would prefer to spend the surplus money on rather than return it to taxpayers.

Tax policy is a non-partisan issue that has real-world economic consequences, especially when it comes to taxes on business income. Here are five reasons why the state Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass the governor’s entire tax relief package, including reduction of the commonwealth’s corporate income tax rate:

  1. There’s a very large budget surplus

In fact, Virginia is sitting on a record budget surplus of $3.6 billion, which is revenue collected from businesses and individual taxpayers in excess of the needs and priorities state legislators have already identified and fully funded during the 2022-2024 biennial budget process. It’s disingenuous to suggest that Virginia “can’t afford” to return at least part of that surplus to taxpayers.

  1. Tax relief should be a priority

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, stated that “I don’t think cutting taxes … is the way to go because there’s a lot to be done.” But it was up to Saslaw and his colleagues in the General Assembly to make sure that any critical spending needs were included in the state budget. After all, setting spending priorities is a legislator’s most basic job, and taxpayers should not be penalized for their inaction.

Furthermore, a glance at the governor’s budget amendmentsshows that Youngkin is not proposing to spend the entire surplus (or even half of it) on tax relief. He’s asked for increased state spending in almost every department, including $500,000 to be used to lure the Washington Commanders to Virginia and $99 million for a one-time bonus for all state employees. If there’s enough surplus money for these and other nice-to-have wants, there’s enough for tax relief.

  1. Lower corporate income taxes spurs economic growth

The governor wants to reduce the corporate income tax rate for Virginia businesses from 6 percent to 5 percent, which Youngkin said was “the first step toward the ultimate goal of 4 percent at the end of our administration.” He also proposed a 10 percent Qualified Business Income Deduction for small businesses in the commonwealth, which aligns with a similar deduction in the federal tax code.

Virginia is one of 44 states that levy a corporate income tax, which ranges from 2.5 percent in neighboring North Carolina to 11.5 percent in New Jersey. Corporate income taxes are generally associated with lower economic performance because “they discourage the sort of activities which are most significant for growth, like investment in capital and productivity improvements,” according to the Tax Foundation. Such investments are key to creating jobs and making Virginia more competitive with its lower-tax neighbors.

Enhanced economic growth, in turn, increases future state revenue. So in a very real sense, corporate tax relief now will pay dividends for the state down the line.

  1. Corporations don’t pay taxes, people do

The late economist and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman soundly refuted claims that tax relief for corporations was just a government hand-out to the rich by pointing out that the elementary fact is that ‘business’ does not and cannot pay taxes. Only people can pay taxes. Corporate officials may sign the check, but the money that they forward to Internal Revenue comes from the corporation’s employees, customers or stockholders.”

Reducing corporate income taxes ultimately benefits individuals because it lowers the cost of doing business, which is always passed on to customers via higher prices.  Tax relief frees up money not only for capital investments and expansion, but also for employee salaries/benefits and stockholder dividends. Since the government cannot create new wealth, but can only redistribute it, a high tax burden makes Virginia less competitive when neighboring states like North Carolina and Kentucky are offering a much more business friendly environment.   

  1. It’s the right thing to do

The sheer size of the budget surplus is clear evidence that the commonwealth has been overcharging taxpayers far beyond what was necessary to keep the state government functioning. Any corporation doing business in Virginia that overcharged its customers would soon be under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office and the State Corporation Commission, both of which required Dominion Energy to refund millions of dollars it had overcharged Virginians. It would be hypocritical for the state not to follow the same rules it imposes on everybody else.

For these reasons, tax relief has been a longstanding policy goal of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.  Now that Virginia is finally in a fiscally sound position to ease the tax burden on businesses, the state Senate should not stand in the way.

Barbara Hollingsworth is Visiting Fellow with the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.  She may be reached at [email protected].

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Let Them Eat Cake

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On being told that peasants were starving for lack of bread, Marie Antionette is reputed to have said “Let them eat cake.”

Marie Antionette had nothing on Delegate Suhas Subramanyam.

At a House subcommittee meeting on Wednesday, Delegate Subramanyam was confronted with more than a dozen low-income families and black community leaders demanding educational choices and opportunities for their children.

His response? “Kids do have a choice right now.  Their parents can pay for a private school if they wanted to.”

Easy for Delegate Subramanyam to say.  He represents a district with a median household income of $125,000.

But these parents and leaders weren’t from his district.  They live in and represent communities facing imploding school systems where black students – already behind — lost more than two years’ worth of math instruction and more than 1.5 years in reading instruction as a result of the pandemic.

Covid underscored the poor performance of low-income students of color and the inadequate instruction given in a one-size fits all environment.

The parents of those students aren’t taking it anymore.

As Shequanna Becot pointed out, it is not just about academics.  With two children in Richmond Public Schools, she finally obtained a scholarship for her severely bullied son to attend Anna Julia Cooper School.  Her reason for supporting Education Success Accounts?  “The bullying in public schools … is the reason why as a parent I should have the choice to send my child anywhere.  I want my child to be in a safe environment.”

Another mother tearfully testified that the bullying had driven her son to suicide, saying “Maybe if I’d had another option, he could have gone elsewhere and things could be better.”  Yet another community leader noted that students attending a summer camp she runs feared going back to the community and the school he is designated to attend because of the zip code he lives in.

What made the subcommittee hearing extraordinary is the rarity of black and brown witnesses lining up to support a bill sponsored by a Republican.  Delegate Glenn Davis’ bill would create Education Success Accounts – accounts giving parents who move their children from public school a portion of the funding the state would have spent on their public school, but allowing the parent to spend it on private school tuition, tutoring, fees, books, therapies, and the like.  Federal and local funding stays with the local school system.

Lining up with the parents are the community leaders they rely on.  Former Richmond School Board member Tichi Pinkney Eppes noted “I support this bill because it provides an option.  We all know the condition of our public schools.  Some are thriving, some are not.  In Richmond, unfortunately, not enough of them are.  And parents need options.”

Michael Bailey stepped up, as well.  After 35 years of experience in public education and with the NCAA, Bailey now works as a Life Skills Coach, working with at-risk children teaching them the skills they will need not only to survive but to thrive.

“I represent a different culture of people who don’t have opportunity and choice today,” Bailey noted.  “And they want to be able to choose a school in which their student may attend.  The voters are here.  We are represented.  And we want to be able to choose which schools our students attend, whether they are in a zip code or out of the zip code.  Education is education, it doesn’t have a color.   Either you’re for it or against it.”

Different culture indeed.  According to Delegate Schuyler Van Valkenburg, “That’s just not the reality of what we have.”  He claims, “Every school system has different courseloads, different programs, different methods and models within the schools, have different choices, you have magnet schools, governors schools, CTE programs you can go to.”

Yes … if one lives in Delegate VanValkenburg’s district, where nearly 60 percent of the residents have a post-secondary degree and can agitate for a multitude of programs to serve their children, that no doubt is the case.

But the parents he dismissed were standing before him simply seeking a school where their child would learn skills for life and be safe in the process of doing so. It is a concept alien to those like Mr. VanValkenburg.  He turned them down and turned them away.

Repeated studies demonstrate the attributes of choice programs:  That they serve less advantaged students, increase educational attainment, reduce the likelihood of incarceration, and increase academic achievement for students in both private and public schools.  All of that makes for better students, better adults, and a better society.

The bill is expected to head to the full Education Committee next week, and both Republicans and Democrats need a call or email of support.

No one understands what is at stake for those parents better than Lt. Governor Winsome Earle-Sears, who initiated the bill and is fighting to see it passed.

That more Republican legislators don’t understand the opening before them to make common cause with these parents, on principles of opportunity they have long advocated, is astounding.

But Dr. Mark James, a former reading teacher and public high school administrator, does understand … and he fired a shot across the bow of those hellbent on blocking the bill:  “If you came with a No in your pocket today you’re saying No to the people who campaign and walk for you.  No to the students that are going across town to schools where they don’t fit in.  No to the opportunity for a student to be able to have a choice. When you have a choice, you have opportunity.  What are you trying to gain by stopping something that will give opportunity to people that don’t have it?”

Delegate Subramanyam and his colleagues may well feel equally comfortable offering the 21st century equivalent of “Let them eat cake.”

But they should remember the consequences that came with it for Marie Antionette.

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Small Customers In Danger When Energy Elephants Dance

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The Virginia House of Delegates is expected to vote this week to exempt certain Virginia manufacturers, which ones to be determined later, from the coming wave of energy costs created by Virginia’s rapid transition to unreliable forms of power generation.

House Bill 1430, sponsored by Delegate Lee Ware, R-Powhatan, mirrors a similar failed effort from the 2022 General Assembly.  It was approved in the House Commerce and Energy Committee Thursday on a party line 12-10 vote, with only Republicans in favor.   The likelihood of a similar partisan divide is the bill’s biggest challenge in the Virginia Senate, because Democrats hold a majority there.

Supporters are correct in noting that the higher energy costs on the way will stress the manufacturing sector and create a strong incentive for some of these companies to either leave Virginia or spend any expansion dollars in states – or foreign countries — with lower energy costs.

Opponents are equally correct in noting that if that many large energy users no longer have to help pay for projects such as Dominion Energy Virginia’s coming offshore wind project, with $10 billion now the low-end cost projection, it will substantially raise the costs of those who cannot evade the bill.  It simply shifts the costs.

And this is something Democrats apparently understand because they have already done exactly the same for a group they want to protect, low-income households.  That group won’t pay for the wind project either.  When Democrats passed the 2020 bill mandating the massive wind project, they included a provision to exempt those residential households which will be part of the Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP).  How many that will be is yet to be determined.

The PIPP energy subsidy for low income customers is also funded by a separate charge on electric bills.  Ware’s new legislation will save the manufacturers from having to pay for that, as well, providing a second boost in shifted costs upon homeowners and businesses who get no exemption.

This is the dominant theme of energy policy in Virginia today – everybody must look out for themselves.  Another example:  customers of Virginia’s many regional electric cooperatives were also exempted from paying for the wind project.  They won’t have to pay for the additional cost of the wind project when they buy power wholesale from Dominion.

In its promotional material, the Virginia Manufacturers Association points to cost projections from both the State Corporation Commission and the utility itself:

According to an SCC order last year, Dominion Energy’s residential customers may pay 46% more for electricity by 2035. Dominion Resources own 2020 Integrated Resource Plan projects that between 2022-2036 their compounded retail rate will increase anywhere from 21.21% – 46.61%5. This does not include the Grid Transformation & Security Act, Coal Ash, Undergrounding, RGGI, PIPP or other riders/costs the legislature has passed in the last few years that will compound cost increases.

The SCC has also stated in a recent order that the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project alone would cost 78 cents (per) kWh or 26 times the cost of purchasing energy from the market. In a recent SCC settlement, this project was approved to substantially exceed its original cost estimate.

It addressed the issue of cost shifting by arguing that will still happen if the factories in question close or leave, causing far more economic hardship than just higher home electric bills.  Again, that is perfectly true.

Should the bill pass as written, it would not cover all companies that can make the argument they are especially vulnerable to higher energy costs.  The exemptions are limited to 200 megawatts in aggregated demand for Dominion’s territory, and 40 megawatts of aggregated demand among industrial customers of the Appalachian Power Company in Western Virginia.  Which companies make the cut will be fought out in front of the SCC.  It could end up being a short list of very big companies.

A story on the bill in the Richmond Times-Dispatch translated Dominion’s 200 megawatt ceiling as equivalent to 180,000 residential accounts.  Think of every home in the City of Richmond, for example.  The PIPP customers exempted from paying for the turbines might equate to another major city.  Perhaps before the session ends somebody will get the SCC staff to produce some real numbers on the impact on the rest of us.

In testimony on Ware’s bill, a Dominion vice president said the company endorsed it, and a lobbyist for Appalachian said that firm had no position, but with a couple more tweaks might add its support.  While APCO does have some major green energy project costs coming, which its big customers might want to avoid, it has nothing comparable to Dominion’s wind and solar ambitions.

In the giant political trading marketplace that Virginia energy policy has become, both Dominion and Appalachian have goals they want to accomplish this session.  Dominion’s new rewrite of its regulatory process, discussed here last week, is now formally introduced as House Bill 1770.  Appalachian has filed an even more dramatic revision to the rules, a breathtaking escape from SCC oversight.  See House Bill 1777 and Senate Bill 1075.

Even Governor Glenn Youngkin (R), reported as taking no position on the Dominion regulatory scramble, has something he badly wants that may need utility support to pass.  His ambitions with regard to small modular nuclear reactors are fleshed out in House Bill 2333.  The bill is clearly drafted to favor Dominion as the entity that would develop such a multi-billion dollar project over the coming decade.

So we have something brewing that’s good for manufacturers, other bills likely to enrich Dominion and Appalachian stockholders, and a high profile project that a governor clearly desires.  The absence from this game of average ratepayers or someone fighting for them, be they homeowners or small businesses, is obvious.  The inviolable rule of legislative politics is, if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.

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