The Virginia House of Delegates yesterday unanimously approved a bill imposing major restrictions on the automatic pass-through of fuel costs to electric utility customers.
Increased fuel charges, passed on without hearings through a regulatory device known as the fuel adjustment clause, have accounted for most of the near doubling in electricity prices since the Arab oil embargo of late 1973.
Gov. John N. Dalton promised in his Jan. 17 legislative message to propose controls on the fuel clause and the bill passed by the House, 98 to 0, is almost identical to a measure introduced for the administration in the Senate.
If approved by the Senate, the bill would require electric utilities to make an annual projection of their coal, oil and nuclear fuel costs and authorize the State Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, to set rates based on those estimates.
A key provision of the bill requires to SCC to hold quarterly reviews of fuel charges the SCC world prohibit the pass-through of any costs that result from failure to use the pass-through of any costs that result from failure to use the most economical generating facilities available to the utility or from the failure of generating plants to operate at a level of productivity at least equal to the national average for comparable plants.
These restrictions are designed to meet the objections of consumer advocates who have contended that the fuel adjustment clause allows utilities to pass on higher fuel costs caused by low producticity at the most economical generating plants.
Virginia Electric and Power Co., for example, can charge more for electricity generated by expensive oil when its two nuclear power generating units or its large coal fired units are not operating at expected levels.
Although sponsors of the fuel clause bill say it will not bring about any reduction in current electric bills, it is regarded as the most important piece of utility legislation to be acted on in the General Assembly since electric rates began rising rapidly five years ago.
Passage of the bill came as both the House and Senate held unusual Saturday sessions in an effort to meet a self-imposed deadline requiring each house to complete action on bills in produced by its members on Monday. The session began on Jan. 11 and is scheduled to end March 11.
Before the full House met, its privileges and Elections Committee delivered a stunning blow to the Senate Democratic leadership by killing a bill that would have transferred control of the state, city and county electoral boards from Republicans to Democrats.
Existing law gives the majority of seats on these boards that regulate elections to the party of the governor. The Senate had passed a bill introduced by Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax), the Senate majority leader, that would have given the majority of seats to the party getting the highest number of votes in the last Assembly election.
The present law was adopted when the possibility of a Republican governor in Virginia was remote. Now, three Republican governors have been elected in a row, but the Assembly remains overwhelmingly Democratic.
Although the bill passed the Senate by a margin sufficient to withstand a certain veto by Republican Dalton, the conservative Democratic leadership of the House did not show much enthusiasm for what everyone agreed was a plenty partisan measure.
In the Privileges and Elections Committee, six Democrats joined the four Republican members to kill the bill on a 10- to-10 tie vote.
In an interview after the vote, Brault referred to six members of his party who helped kill the bill as "so-called Democrats" and suggestd that his counterpart in the House, Majority Leader A.L. Philpott (Henry) had let the bill die without a fight. "A.L. told me early in the session that there would be no problem," he said, "But I haven't been able to pin him down on it lately."
Despite the Democratic setback on electoral boards, Democrats in each house rallied together sufficient unify to take faintly partisan actions aimed at the secretary of the commonwealth, the official appointed by the governor to process appointments, pardons and other executive actions.
By appointing former Republican Rep. Sanford E. Parris of Fairfax County to the job, Dalton raised fears among Democrats that the governor's extensive appointment powers will be more attuned to party politics than ever before.
The Assembly has yet to confirm Parris' appointment and yesterday the Senate passed a bill that would transfer his power to register lobbyists to the clerks of the House and Senate.
What had become an increasingly emotional controversy in the Senate over financial relief for a deposed Richmond judge ended abruptly yesterday when sponsors of the bill concluded that it would be unconstitutional.
The bill was intended to aid former General District Court Judge Harold C. Maurice, who was deprived of his pension last year by the Virginia Supreme Court after a finding that he permitted illegal sales of guns and alcohol under control of his court.
Sen. J. Harry Michael Jr. (D-Charlottesville) rose to tell the Senate yesterday that while searching the state constitution for authority to grant a pension to Maurice's wife, rather than to the former judge, he discovered a provision that prohibits the Assembly from granting relief in cases under the jurisdiction of the courts.
The Maurice relief bill was then recommitted to committee, effectively killing it.
The House gave preliminary approval to a bill that protects beer distributors from arbitrary acts by brewing companies.
Del. Norman Sisisky (D-Petersburg), a beer distributor, rose to plead for his fellow wholesalers. Without the bill, he said. "A brewery could come into my area and set up a distributor and 35 years of good will would go down the drain."
The bill, passed on by voice vote, will come up for a final recorded vote on Monday.
The House also passed a bill that would permit optometrists to administer certain drugs to aid eye examinations. The bill was strongly opposed by ophthamologists, medical doctors who specialize in treatment of eye diseases.
The House killed a bill sponsored by Del. Robert E. Harris (R-Fairfax) that would have prohibited cities and counties from using zoning laws to prevent persons from using single family homes for religious services. Members who spoke against the bill said they felt local governments should have the power to regulate residential property use that might regularly attract large crowds and automobile traffic to a neighborhood.