RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Sen. Frank Wagner is the chief sponsor of legislation that would weaken state oversight of Dominion Virginia Power's rate setting. The move could help the utility giant's bottom line and its shareholders, of which Wagner is one.
But the Virginia Beach Republican said he's not pushing the legislation for his benefit or that of Dominion's, but because he thinks the measure will protect the state's consumers from higher rates brought on by federal efforts to curb carbon emissions. And Wagner, who is a wealthy shipyard owner, said the $5,000 he owns in Dominion shares is a minor part of a much larger portfolio.
"It's legal and I don't see any issue there whatsoever," he said.
Wagner's bill sailed through the Senate Committee on Commerce and Finance by a 14-1 vote Monday, with two other state senators who own stock in Dominion voting in favor.
Proponents of the bill testified that it will freeze base rates and help customers avoid large rate hikes associated with implementing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan. They said it would also help avoid the premature closing of several coal-powered plants and provide stable rates for consumers, who would also enjoy the benefits associated with dropping fuel prices.
Critics said the measure will allow Dominion to charge excessively high rates while escaping needed scrutiny from the State Corporation Commission, which is tasked with making sure Virginia's consumers are protected.
A new version of the bill introduced Monday would also exempt Appalachian Power, the state's second-largest electric utility, from biennial reviews by the commission for several years.
There are 11 lawmakers in the General Assembly who listed directly owning Dominion stock in their most recent financial disclosure forms, according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, which monitors politicians' finances.
As a regulated monopoly, Dominion has a strong interest in staying on good terms with state lawmakers. The utility is the biggest corporate donor to state political campaigns and is the most generous gift-giver to state lawmakers.
Many lawmakers who own Dominion stock said their investment does not require them to abstain from measures affecting the company because they aren't receiving any special treatment in return for their vote.
But not every Dominion shareholder in the legislature feels comfortable voting on measures directly affecting the company.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who only casts votes in the event of a tie in the Senate, said he wouldn't participate in any votes on legislation affecting the company because he owns shares in it.
"I don't think it would be appropriate to vote under those conditions," said Northam. "I think it would be a conflict of interests."
Republican House Appropriations Committee Chairman Del. S. Chris Jones, who lists owning between $50,000 to $250,000 in Dominion stock, did not vote on a measure last year that allows Dominion to write off spending aimed at increasing its nuclear-generated power. The measure reduced the chances Dominion would have to give rebates to its customers.
Jones said he did not want to vote on a measure that could help a company in which he has a personal financial stake.
"I felt it appropriate to abstain," he said.
But most lawmakers who own the company's stock did vote for the legislation. And the measure was sponsored by Henrico County Republican Sen. Walter Stosch, who listed owning between $50,000 and $250,000 in Dominion stock in his latest financial disclosure report.
The longtime lawmaker said the stock is part of a trust and was recommended to him by his financial adviser. He said he felt comfortable sponsoring the bill while owning the company's stock.
"I have voted for and against Dominion," Stosch said. "I have voted for and against virtually everything down here."