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Democrat-sponsored campaign finance bills left in committee

Sen. Roem speaks about a bill
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
State Sen. Danica Roem, D–Prince William, gives remarks on the Virginia Senate floor on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024 in Richmond.

Utilities like Dominion Energy spoke against the proposals.

Two bills that would bar Virginia political candidates from taking donations from regulated utility companies stalled in General Assembly committees on Tuesday.

For years, similar proposals have been introduced by legislators who criticize the political spending of Dominion Energy, the electric utility that powers most of the state.

Some sponsors of those bills also have received donations from Clean Virginia, an advocacy group founded in 2018 by Charlottesville investor Michael Bills that aims to advance clean energy policy and challenge Dominion’s influence in Richmond.

Del. Joshua Cole (D–Fredericksburg) carried HB190, which was heard in the House Privileges and Elections committee on Feb. 6. He called the measure an “equalizer” for individual citizens without the wealth of a Fortune 500 company.

“I’m not here to cast shame on the money we took to get here, I’m just calling for a ‘jubilee,’ if you will, or to wipe the slate clean,” Cole said.

After nearly 20 minutes of public discussion among lawmakers, advocates and lobbyists, committee chairperson Del. Cia Price (D–Newport News) asked for a motion — a step in the legislative process to set up a vote to approve, reject or delay a bill.

But no motion came; the bill failed without a vote.

In the upper house, state Sen. Danica Roem (D–Prince William) carried SB326.

“We wanted to make sure that if you’re performing a service in lieu of the government, doing it as a regulated monopoly, that the company is not donating directly to candidates,” Roem said.

That bill was approved by the Senate Privileges and Elections committee along an 8–6 party-line vote on Feb. 9. It was referred to another committee — Finance and Appropriations.

The finance panel, chaired by state Sen. Louise Lucas (D–Portsmouth), held its last meeting Monday; it did not consider Roem’s bill. The final deadline for bills to be considered in their house of origin was Tuesday.

Dominion Energy opposed the bills, with its attorney Chris Nolen speaking against the measures in both House and Senate committee meetings.

“It decides to take the speech of one and suppress it, so that others — their speech is elevated as a consequence in the political realm,” Nolen said of the Senate bill,

He referenced other state-regulated enterprises, including auto dealer franchises, charity gaming and medical marijuana, that were not included in the bill.

Other companies, including Appalachian Power, Columbia Gas of Virginia and Virginia Natural Gas opposed the bills, too.

Nolen said Dominion Energy supports campaign finance laws that apply equally across the board.

Nancy Morgan, coordinator of the advocacy group BigMoneyOutVA, supported the bills.

“It addresses an existing conflict of interest between a corporation and the body that provides oversight and regulation,” Morgan said in the Senate committee hearing.

Morgan said even though BigMoneyOutVA supports the utility-focused bills, the group primarily advocates for an across-the-board cap on contributions from individuals, corporations, PACs and more.

Del. David Bulova’s HB874 would have done that, but it suffered an even more quiet death than Cole and Roem’s proposals.

“[It] was never docketed, they didn’t even hear the bill,” Morgan said. “This is after the most expensive election in Virginia history.”

That measure would have affected both Dominion and Clean Virginia.

Dominion spent $13,176,866 in the 2022-'23 campaign cycle, spread almost equally among Republicans and Democrats, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Clean Virginia rivaled that, spending $10,351,889 in the same period — but mostly on Democratic candidates.

Lucas, chair of the Senate committee that killed Roem’s bill, collected $400,000 from Dominion in 2023. State Sen. Aaron Rouse (D–Virginia Beach), chair of Senate Privileges and Elections committee, collected $206,000 from Clean Virginia.

Despite his bill failing, Cole said he’s committed to reintroducing it next year and is still convinced that more legislators are getting on board.

“We can see that by how many campaign finance bills were introduced this year,” he said.

With crossover in the rearview, lawmakers in the House will consider bills passed by the Senate and vice versa. Bills must be passed by March 9, before going to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s desk for final approval — or veto.

Disclosure: Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia are VPM donors.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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