RICHMOND — Bedfellows don’t get much stranger than the left-leaning Virginia Poverty Law Center and former state attorney general Ken Cuccinelli (R), the lightning-rod conservative who ran for governor and defied Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention.
But Cuccinelli has filed a legal brief on behalf of the VPLC in fighting one of the most powerful corporations in the state: Dominion Power.
At issue is a bill passed in 2015 by the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) that freezes base electricity rates in Virginia for five years. Dominion and Appalachian Power Co., the two utilities that supply virtually all electricity in the state, said they needed rate protection from the anticipated cost of complying with former president Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
The Virginia Constitution gives authority to the State Corporation Commission to regulate electricity rates. It can order rebates or reduce rates if it finds that the utilities are overcharging consumers. But the new law protects Dominion and Appalachian from that review through 2019 while preserving their ability to seek permission to raise rates.
State Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax) introduced a bill this month to undo the arrangement if the Clean Power Plan never goes into effect — which seems likely after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration Friday.
The frozen base rates are “an obscene windfall to utilities,” Petersen said this week. But his bill was killed in committee.
Cuccinelli spoke in favor of Petersen’s bill and on Thursday filed his legal brief along with another former state attorney general — Democrat Andrew Miller — on behalf of the VPLC, which advocates for the economically disadvantaged.
“This is a legalized transfer [of money] from poorer Virginians to two utility companies,” Cuccinelli said in an interview. “It is unfair and unjust and unconstitutional, and it’s bad policy.”
He and other opponents of the law say the utilities are pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars — potentially as much as $2 billion — in excess rates during the course of the freeze. Last year, members of the State Corporation Commission found in a review that the utilities are charging excess rates but had no power to order reductions.
Cuccinelli’s brief, filed late Thursday, supports a legal challenge filed by the Old Dominion Committee for Fair Utility Rates that is pending before the state Supreme Court.
Dominion disputes those claims, pointing out that rates are lower now than they were when the bill took effect. That is in part because of reduced costs of natural gas — a factor that’s separate from base rates in a consumer’s bill and not part of the freeze under the law.
“We fundamentally disagree with the [corporation] commission’s assessment that Dominion is overcharging in any way,” Dominion spokesman David Botkins said. To rescind the law now would be “changing the rules of the game for us as a company.”
He pointed out that other aspects of the law that froze rates included a mandate for significant new investments in solar energy and an infusion of $57 million for energy-conservation efforts for poor and elderly customers.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to take up the case in February.