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Ratepayer advocates, business interests want Youngkin, lawmakers to act on key regulatory vacancies

The Associated Press//May 19, 2023

Ratepayer advocates, business interests want Youngkin, lawmakers to act on key regulatory vacancies

The Associated Press//May 19, 2023//

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A coalition that includes influential business and advocacy groups wrote this week to Virginia lawmakers and Gov. Glenn Youngkin, asking them to take action to fill two long-running vacancies on the state’s powerful regulatory panel that oversees interests ranging from utilities to insurance.

Members of the Virginia Ratepayer Protection Alliance, including Google, Shell Energy, Kroger and Amazon Web Services, wrote May 17 that the General Assembly’s failure to fill two of the three spots on the State Corporation Commission is “short-changing” Virginia’s citizens.

“These Commissioner seats have been vacant for too long,” the group wrote in the letter, which was shared with The Associated Press. “While the SCC’s highly professional staff is ensuring the Commission continues to fulfill its statutory and constitutional responsibilities, the General Assembly is short-changing the citizens of the Commonwealth by not electing judges for two successive sessions. This is unacceptable and must come to an end with an election of two qualified professionals to the Commission.”

The SCC’s purview includes the regulation of utilities, insurance, state-chartered financial institutions, railroads, business filings and other matters. It typically generates the most headlines for its decisions in electric utility cases, like its ongoing oversight of the implementation of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, a sweeping 2020 law that mandates a transition by electric utilities over several decades to renewable energy.

All those sectors “deserve a robust proceeding before a full bench of SCC Commissioners,” said the letter from the coalition, which formed to advocate on matters involving utility ratepayers’ interests.

State law says that if a vacancy on the commission occurs when the legislature is in session, lawmakers “shall” elect a successor. Otherwise, the governor can make a temporary appointment.

In response to AP inquiries May 19, legislative leaders suggested there’s been no movement on the partisan gridlock that’s ensnared the issue.

“None. Not yet,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw.

The first of the current openings on the commission came about in early 2022, when the GOP-controlled House of Delegates effectively removed a nominee of former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Last year’s regular session and a special session came and went without an agreement on a replacement for Angela Navarro, who had previously worked as an environmental attorney and in Northam’s administration.

Then another commissioner, Judith Jagdmann, resigned in December. She told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that her decision was made in part to make it easier for lawmakers to come to an agreement — presumably with the GOP-controlled House getting one pick and Senate Democrats getting another.

That didn’t come to pass.

This year’s session also ended without an agreement and with limited transparency or public discussion of the issue.

House Speaker Todd Gilbert said in a statement May 19 that while there’s a framework in place for an agreement — each side getting a pick — Senate Democrats have insisted on the return of “someone who has already been rejected by the General Assembly.”

Saslaw asserted that Navarro had been removed for no reason other than retribution over a different appointment fight. He added: “We told them they could appoint whoever they want, but they want control over who we appoint. And we wouldn’t agree to that. That’s the story right there.”

Youngkin’s press office didn’t directly respond to questions about the letter or the governor’s thoughts on the best path forward. But spokesperson Christian Martinez said in a statement that “SCC should not be used as a political pawn, denying Virginians the governance they deserve in critical areas of their lives.”

Consternation about the vacancies goes far beyond the May 17 letter.

Will Reisinger, an energy regulatory attorney and former assistant attorney general who follows matters before the SCC closely, said the agency has one of the largest jurisdictions of any regulatory commission in the country. He called it “crazy” that lawmakers have let the posts sit vacant.

“I don’t understand the politics here. But just in terms of implementing the existing law, we need additional bodies in those chairs in order to process” the wide range of orders the commission handles, he said.

Former SCC Judge Patricia West was recalled in January to participate in SCC cases, agency spokesman Andy Farmer said in an email. A quorum of two commissioners is needed to issue an order, according to Farmer, who said the agency had no comment on the May 17 letter.

Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans, said that while he had not heard of complaints from the members of his organization about the agency’s operations, “obviously it would be nice to have it resolved.”

Matt Bruning, executive vice president for government and member relations at the Virginia Bankers Association, said the issue is one his group’s members are watching closely.

“The banking industry is one that certainly wants and appreciates clarity and consistency from the regulators,” Bruning said, adding that the vacancies create “uncertainty.”

Steve Haner, who began closely following the agency’s work as a lobbyist some 15 years ago, said the vacancies seem to have only become a political issue in recent years.

“I think there’s a recognition from all parties that what we want is people who will be fair, and people who will listen to everybody and hold a fair process and listen to the evidence and not make up their mind until they’ve done that,” said Haner, who frequently writes about matters before the SCC as a senior fellow at the right-of-center Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy.

-SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press

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