J. Chapman Petersen, a Democrat, represents Fairfax City in the Virginia Senate.
In 2008, then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) had an opportunity rarely afforded to Virginia chief executives: a recess appointment for a commissioner of the State Corporation Commission. In February, that commissioner, James C. Dimitri, retired.
Dimitri was renowned as a fair judge who took seriously the mission to protect the rights of Virginia consumers. This vacancy has fallen off the radar of many Virginians, but they should pay attention. The State Corporation Commission’s work is critical. The next commissioner will have the most important job you’ve never heard of.
In 1902, the delegates to Virginia’s Constitutional Convention were a mix of Confederate veterans and postbellum professionals. Among them was my ancestor R. Walton Moore, a lawyer and state senator from the town of Fairfax. The convention enshrined the state’s power to regulate monopolies providing basic daily necessities. Today those powers live on in Article IX of the Virginia Constitution, which authorizes the State Corporation Commission.
At that time, the all-powerful railroads controlled the flow of commerce in the commonwealth. Today it is energy companies. Regardless, the issue of political influence by monopolies and the role of the SCC have remained the same. Populist anger over utility over-earnings and political influence is not new; it has been in Virginia for more than 100 years.
The desired qualities of the new commissioner are threefold: The new commissioner must have a judicial temperament and the ability to impartially analyze the merits of each case. The new commissioner should have a keen understanding of modern energy markets and the other industries regulated by the SCC. And, the new commissioner must faithfully execute the mission of the SCC, which is not to rubber-stamp business plans of powerful corporations but to be the voice of the consumer and ratepayer.
For example, legislation from last session authorizes monopoly utilities to request billions of dollars in new electric generation and distribution, with cryptic requirements to invest in renewable energy or efficiency technology.
Enactment and oversight of that spending fall to the SCC. The commission will hear new types of electric rate cases and be asked to approve rate increases for various renewable and “grid modernization” projects.
The caseload will be substantial, it will come quickly, and it will require legal experience and industry expertise to protect citizens from unnecessary utility bill increases.
Virginia also needs a voice for consumers at the SCC. Commissioners approve or reject rate increases that affect the household bills of every Virginian who uses electricity. Unless you’re living in a yurt reading this newspaper by candlelight, the next SCC commissioner can affect your pocketbook.
The Virginia House and Senate are at a stalemate on who should be the next commissioner. If the respective chambers cannot decide, the governor is directed by the Constitution to appoint a commissioner “forthwith.”
Dimitri’s retirement leaves a consumer-minded void in the SCC. And the governor and members of the General Assembly should look to his example when selecting a worthy successor.