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We Could Start Finding Out on Monday Afternoon Where the State Senate Might Be Headed on Virginia Energy Policy

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There have been thousands of bills filed so far in the 2020 Virginia General Assembly, on every subject under the sun, and  the job of starting to wade through them – and pare the thousands of bills down to a more manageable number – will fall largely on House and Senate subcommittees.

Historically – certainly in the era before live streaming and the internet – much of that occurred out of the public’s eyes and ears. And this served “The Virginia Way” very well, as progressive and/or environmental legislation could be killed quietly, without much fuss, and often without even recorded votes – thus, minimal if any accountability with voters. Amazingly, it was only in 2018 – after the Democratic “blue wave,” not coincidentally – that “the House of Delegates…for the first time…require[d] all votes in subcommittees be recorded.” Prior to that, as Del. Mark Levine pointed out at the time, “votes in subcommittee were not recorded, residents were unable to see how their elected representatives voted on bills that failed to move forward in the legislative process.”

The result of these changes? “The percentage of measures spiked without a recorded vote dropped from about 55 percent in 2017 to less than 30 percent in 2018, according to VPAP, a nonpartisan tracker of money and trends in state politics.” Of course, “There are still a number of ways to defeat measures without a recorded vote, such as consolidating a bill into another lawmaker’s, referring it to a committee that is no longer scheduled to meet, or a committee simply not bringing it up for a vote.”  Finally, another move towards transparency in these subcommittees has come about due to live streaming of meetings, including by Progress Virginia’s excellent “Eyes on Richmond” service.  I’m not sure how many people watch these feeds, but at least they’re available for reporters, activists, etc.

So anyway, starting this Monday afternoon, we’re going to really get going with committee and subcommittee meetings. For instance, on the calendar for Monday afternoon is “Senate Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy; Senate Room A, Pocahontas Building – Immediately upon adjournment of Commerce and Labor.” You can see, in the screen grab at the beginning of this post, what’s on the “docket” for that meeting and, also, who’s on the subcommittee. This can start to give us an idea for what might end up happening to legislation on a variety of topics – in this case, energy. In this case, a few things jump out at me:

  • First off, this subcommittee is both brand new (wasn’t around in previous years) and also appears unusual, in that it only has a 3-2 Democratic majority. In comparison, Senate Finance and Appropriations’ subcommittees are much more lopsided: 4D-1R on “Capital Outlay,” 4D-2R on “Economic Development and Natural Resources,” 4D-2R on “K-12 Education,” 5D-2R on “Health and Human Resources,” etc.
  • Also note that most committees don’t even have subcommittees listed yet, while in some cases subcommittees are listed but there’s no membership listed yet on LIS. So it appears that the Senate Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy is one of the first to get up and moving this session. Why is this subcommittee a priority? Is it just a coincidence that it deals with bills impacting Dominion Energy, which has ruled the roost in Richmond for years? I don’t know, but it’s curious…
  • As for the membership of Senate Commerce and Labor Subcommittee on Energy, these do *not* appear to be folks who Dominion would be in any way unhappy about. For instance, Spruill’s top donor over the years is…yep, Dominion (about $50k). And Norment’s third-highest donor over the years is…yep, Dominion ($157k, not including the hundreds of thousands of $$$ Dominion’s given to the Senate GOP). And Lucas’ top donor over the years is…yep, Dominion ($108,450). And…you get the idea. Also worth noting is that everyone on this subcommittee, except for Steve Newman, voted for the 2018 “Dominion Bill.”
  • It’s important to point out that “Senate subcommittees make recommendations to full Senate panels, but do not kill bills outright.” In that context, to the extent this subcommittee might have “added value,” it would be in its ability to really comb through/make informed recommendations on the dozens of different energy bills, many of which are highly technical and complex, and also many of which have provisions which don’t mesh with – or conflict with – provisions in other bills. The problem is, this subcommittee doesn’t appear to have energy policy wonks on it. So…hard to see what the subcommittee’s going to really offer, when it comes to making informed recommendations to the parent Commerce & Labor committee.
  • I’d also remind everyone that the State Senate only has a 21-19 Democratic majority, while the House of Delegates has a 55-45 Democratic majority. Also, the Senate Democratic caucus tends to be older and less progressive than the House Democratic caucus.  Which means that it’s *possible* – hopefully not *likely* – that we could end up seeing progressive legislation coming out of the House and then fizzling out in the Senate. It’s something to keep an eye on going forward, including in committees and subcommittees.
  • As for the bills under consideration Monday, there’s Sen. Barbara Favola’s SB 94 Virginia Energy Plan, which was a mess as originally introduced, but supposedly has been fixed and is reportedly much better at this point; Sen. Chap Petersen’s SB 504 (covenants regarding solar power, reasonable restrictions), which looks like an excellent bill that should pass; Sen. Steve Newman’s SB 549 (Nuclear energy; strategic plan), which seems ok at first glance; Sen. Dick Saslaw’s SB 782 (Undergrounding electric transmission lines; pilot program) and SB 784 (Transmission lines; relocation and undergrounding), which are the types of bills that require serious technical expertise to judge properly; Sen Lynwood Lewis’ SB 817 (Nuclear energy; considered a clean energy source), which I don’t really like, as nuclear energy is carbon-free but not “clean” in the same sense as energy efficiency, solar, wind, geothermal, etc.; and Sen. Lywnood Lewis’ SB 828 (Carbon-free energy and clean energy), which seems to be getting at a similar objective as his other bill. Out of these, I’m most interested in the subcommittee’s recommendation on SB94.
  • Also note that a lot of VERY important energy bills – for instance, the “Virginia Clean Economy Act” and “Virginia Green New Deal” – are *not* on the docket for Monday afternoon (perhaps because neither appears to have had a bill introduced in the Senate, only in the House for whatever reason), nor is whatever bill Dominion Energy eventually puts forward.

In sum: While we won’t get a full idea Monday afternoon as to the inclinations of this subcommittee, we *will* get some hints as to where it might be going, and to what extent it’s willing to push ahead aggressively – or not – on moving Virginia rapidly away from dirty/dangerous fossil fuels and towards a sustainable, clean energy economy. Stay tuned!