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Lawmakers push for stronger oversight of Dominion’s rates

(AP) A group of Virginia lawmakers is set to push for stricter regulatory oversight of the state’s dominant electric utility, saying Dominion Energy’s customers have overpaid billions of dollars because of the company’s outsized political sway.

Virginia’s regulatory structure has long been viewed as utility-friendly by Wall Street, and Dominion has routinely pushed through legislation that minimized the chances it has to lower its rates. That’s even though the regulators have routinely found that the electric monopoly’s rates provide excessive profit to the company, including a report last year that found Dominion earned $503 million above authorized levels in 2017 through 2019.

But this year a group of lawmakers and advocacy groups plan to mount the strongest effort in years to beef up the power of the state’s regulatory agency, the State Corporation Commission, to lower rates and order customer refunds.

“Dominion has run roughshod over the ratepayers for years and it is time for a change,” said Del. Jay Jones, a Democrat who is also running for attorney general.

The SCC is set to review Dominion’s base rates later this year, the first rate case in several years. If regulators find Dominion’s rates are too high, they can order refunds and rate reductions. But legislation passed in previous years gives Dominion broad leeway in accounting for certain costs and puts limits on rebates and rate reductions the commission can impose.

The lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing six separate bills they say will free up the commission to set rates that are reasonable and fair.

One measure would allow regulators to spread out the costs of large utility expenses, which would limit Dominion’s ability to front-load costs and avoid having to lower rates or give refunds. Another bill would eliminate a limit currently preventing the SCC from lowering rates by more than $50 million if regulators determine they are too high during this year’s rate review.

Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani said the company’s customers already pay less than the national average and “receive excellent service from increasingly clean energy sources.”

Rate cases used to occur every two years, but there has not been one since 2015 thanks to Dominion-backed legislation. In addition to giving regulators the ability to adjust rates, the rate cases require Dominion to provide detailed information about its expenses and income.

A 2015 investigation by The Associated Press based on records from rates cases found that Dominion had passed well over $1 million dollars in charitable donations — including some to politically connected nonprofits — onto consumers through its base rates. The company later announced it would discontinue the practice.

Dominion is the state’s largest corporate political donor and has a large and well-connected lobbying corps, but it has seen its influence wane in recent years.

The nonprofits backing the legislation include environmental groups, low-income advocacy groups, and Clean Virginia, an organization founded by wealthy investor Michael Bills to counter Dominion’s influence.

The lawmakers sponsoring the bills include Democrats and Republicans but are all House members. Dominion still has many powerful allies in the state Senate.

Del. Lee Ware, a longtime Republican lawmaker who is sponsoring one of the bills, said legislators are becoming increasingly aware of the various constraints Dominion-backed legislation has placed on the SCC. He said he’s hopeful there’s a majority in both chambers willing to make changes.

“You’d have to rate it as good as any year it’s been,” Ware said.

-ALAN SUDERMAN, Associated Press

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