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Video: “Dominion Dick” Saslaw Asked at Falls Church Town Hall Yesterday About Banning Dominion Energy Contributions; Gives Predictable, Misleading, Unacceptable Answer

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At yesterday’s town hall meeting in Falls Church with Sen. “Dominion Dick” Saslaw, a concerned private citizen (Lainie Singerman; see video below) asked Saslaw a simple yet important question (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“Isn’t it inappropriate for corporations like Dominion who get their money from taxpayers to turn around and use that money to influence politicians who are supposed to be regulating them and protecting voters’ interests…Will you make banning public utility corporation campaign contributions a legislative priority moving forward?”

See below the video for Saslaw’s revealing response (“NO”), and for further commentary by those of us who think the answer should be a clear “YES!”

First, I recommend everyone check out this excerpt from Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Kate Pride Brown entitled, “WHY POLITICAL SPENDING BY REGULATED UTILITIES CAN IMPEDE THE TRANSITION TO CLEANER ENERGY SOURCES.” Among other things, Brown discussed the crucial concept of “regulatory capture,” in which “state regulators have been known to promote the interests of the lucrative energy industry.” Brown has studied this issue, and found that “limitations on political contributions from regulated monopolies may be even more important for ensuring fair play than direct elections that allow voters the opportunity to choose commissioners.” Brown continues (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“Regulatory independence tends to be protected, in short, when regulated monopolies are forbidden from making political donations. A truly independent public utility commission can play an important role in promoting a transition to clean energy sources, helping different parties navigate toward an altered business model and a more reliable power infrastructure. The temptation for powerful stakeholders to use financial resources to influence decisions in their favor is omnipresent, so eliminating the temptation is paramount.”

Of course, the 2010 “Citizens United” Supreme Court ruling is highly problematic, among other reasons because it “increased the risk of regulatory collusion with industry, even in small state-level utilities commissions.” Still, I’d argue, Virginia legislators should at least TRY to rein in the influence of (theoretically) state-regulated monopoly utility Dominion Energy. And if they can’t, then perhaps it’s time to consider opening up Virginia’s power sector to real competition by ditching Dominion’s state-protected monopoly? Is there any real need, at a time when electricity markets are changing so rapidly, for a decades-old, top-down, command-and-control utility like Dominion to maintain monopoly status? Seems completely bonkers to me.

Whatever you think about this, to me it’s clear that this is a serious issue that deserves serious debate, not just a curt “NO” by Sen. Dick Saslaw, who not coincidentally has received a whopping $328,008 from his pals at Dominion over the years. Note that Dominion is not a charity, nor is its giving motivated by altruism; clearly, it wants something for the money it gives to politicians like Saslaw. For instance, Dominion wants this bill – which has its fingerprints all over it – passed by the General Assembly this session. Hmmm.

So anyway, after Saslaw’s “no” response to Lainie Singerman’s question, he blabbers on about how Dominion supposedly has “as much right to contribute as anybody else,” how Dominion supposedly has “amongst the lowest residential rates on the East Coast” (note that, to the extent this is the case, it’s wildly misleading; as a study by the Virginia Poverty Law Center found, while Dominion and its bought-and-paid-for hacks like Saslaw like to “[advertise] that they have some of the lowest rates in the region, yet data shows that Virginians experience the 10th-highest average residential electric bills in the nation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The VPLC report also reveals that despite company claims about low rates, Dominion’s Energy’s base rates are average when compared to peer utilities.”), that it’s all “employee donations” going to Dominion’s PAC (alrighty then!), and that he (Saslaw) gives “every last penny” of the money he’s received over the years has gone to electing Democrats (that’s great – other than the fact that Saslaw has also donated to Democrats running against other Democrats, as well as made HIGHLY questionable decisions about what to do with his money, etc., but most crucially it fails to address Singerman’s question or the important underlying issues here).

Finally, as for Del. Simon’s point about “unilateral disarmament,” I personally agree with him that Democrats shouldn’t do that, which is why I support passing a law that applies to EVERYONE – Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens, whoever – so that it’s not “unilateral.” And I also agree with Del. Simon about moving towards public financing of elections; but again, that doesn’t get at the immediate/pressing issue we have with Dominion’s corruption of our political system.

So what did Lainie Singerman think of Saslaw’s response to her excellent question? She emailed me the following statement, which she asked that I use. I’ve added bolding for emphasis.

What troubled me is that Sen. Saslaw’s response did not acknowledge that a problem exists.  I prefaced my question by noting that voters of both parties mistrust the political system and politicians in large part because of the role of money in politics.  Sen. Saslaw may disagree that money influences politicians inappropriately, but he must at least recognize that perception among a broad cross-section of voters, in Virginia and nationwide.
I was grateful that Del. Simon talked about working toward a public financing system for political campaigns.  I disagree with both Sen. Saslaw and Del. Simon that barring contributions from public utilities for public policy reasons would be unconstitutional, but Del. Simon seemed to address the issue that I was trying to raise.   That is the proposition that the way corporations use money to wield influence over our lawmakers in Richmond is both 1) bad because it results in policies that are bad for the people who live in this Commonwealth and 2) bad because it LOOKS bad to voters, especially the young and those who do not strongly identify with either party.  Think of the difference it would make to these voters if our leaders took a principled stand.

I agree 100%, and certainly couldn’t have said that more eloquently or articulately than Lainie Singerman does.  Nice job!

Here’s one more comment by a progressive activist who was at Saslaw’s town hall yesterday. According to Cindy Cunningham (bolding added by me for emphasis):

“If it is, in fact, unconstitutional to prohibit particular companies from donating (despite the obvious conflicts of interest that entails), then they’ll need to place dollar limits on any contribution, like we do at the federal level. But I haven’t seen a bill to do that, have you?”

Cunningham adds, with specific reference to the Dominion bill Saslaw is currently touting:

“This bipartisan bill that Saslaw co-patroned with Dominion’s support is complicated and hard for a layman to read. And if Saslaw hadn’t taken over $300,000 from Dominion just since we’ve had donations tracked on VPAP, I might just trust him when he says what a great bill it is and how great for moving Virginia towards modern, clean energy it is, and that it will put ‘all’ $133 million of overpayment back to the consumers. But it’s impossible to trust that he’s working in my interest, rather than his largest donor’s.” 

Again, well said: why on earth should we trust someone – the State Senate Minority Leader, no less – whose largest donor is a powerful monopoly with billions of dollars of business before the very state legislative body which it has de facto bought and paid for?

Finally, let me just paraphrase one more comment I saw on Facebook by someone who attended the Saslaw town hall yesterday: 1) Saslaw badly needs a primary challenge; 2) an ideal opponent for Saslaw would basically be the anti-Saslaw, supporting an aggressive push for a clean energy transition in Virginia; and 2) would pledge to get corporate money – certainly from a monopoly utility like Dominion – out of our politics, to the extent legally/constitutionally possible. Is there anyone out there like that? Maybe someone like this? Clearly, it’s long past time for Saslaw to enjoy his well-earned retirement. Heck, I’ll start up a “GoFundMe” or whatever for his gold watch! LOL

UPDATE: From Activate Virginia’s Josh Stanfield in the comments section…looks like Dick’s wrong yet again.

Why does Saslaw think the VA Supreme Court would overturn a ban on contributions from corporations or a selective ban from public service corporations? Just last year, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court unanimously upheld their statewide ban on corporate contributions. See King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party (2017):

https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2017/15-0320.html

In Wagner, et al. v. FEC (Miller v. FEC) (2016) the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a selective ban on contributions in federal elections by federal government contractors. SCOTUS refused to grant certiorari.

https://transition.fec.gov/law/litigation/Miller2015.shtml#sc

If you read through both of these opinions – the two most recent cases on this topic – you’ll find the controlling case is FEC V. Beaumont (2003), not Citizens United as many mistakenly believe. Beaumont is the origin of the “closely drawn” standard that would be applied – as opposed to strict scrutiny. From Justice Souter’s majority opinion:

“This is the reason that instead of requiring contribution regulations to be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest, “a contribution limit involving ‘significant interference’ with associational rights” passes muster if it satisfies the lesser demand of being “ ‘closely drawn’ to match a ‘sufficiently important interest.’ ” Nixon, supra, at 387—388 (quoting Buckley, supra, at 25); cf. Austin, 494 U.S., at 657; Buckley, supra, at 44—45.9”

https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-403.ZO.html

When it comes to public service corporations in Virginia, I don’t think we’d have any trouble at all formulating a “sufficiently important interest.” The evidence is there – and the Saslaw/Dominion rate freeze “repeal” could serve as Exhibit A.