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Dominion Buckling Itself In the Driver’s Seat

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by A Siegel

The Old Dominion’s political system and culture is often referred to as “The Virginia Way,” which is nostalgically – but falsely – promoted as one “of honor, gentility and democracy.” And just like “MAGA” glosses over (ignores or even embraces) ugly parts of American history, “The Virginia Way” – as Jeff Thomas writes – does the same for Virginia:

“In reality, this ideology bred a corrupt political class, a runaway electricity company, a university that reflected the values of donors and a school system that suffered from cronyism. This Virginia Way prevented rather than promoted the success of its stated democratic ideals.”

From The Dominion Tax being whitewashed by captive legislators (mainly Virginia GOP) in The Dominion Scam…to allowing construction of and charging ratepayers for unnecessary fossil gas power plants…to building momentum for a blanket check for Dominion excess profiteering from Offshore Wind, this “runaway electricity company” certainly seems to leverage political power to boost significantly profitability. Perhaps a better description of the Old Dominion’s political structure would be “The Dominion Way” since, like Lola in “Damn Yankees,” “whatever Dominion wants, Dominion gets.”

In the Commonwealth, sometimes it is difficult to determine whether it is the regulated utility or the regulators driving public policy. Sometimes there is greater clarity. School bus seat belts is one example.

School bus seat belts have long been a controversial and emotional issue. Analysis has been conflicted as to whether seat belts pass reasonable cost-benefit analyses (see below). Virginia does not require school buses to have seat belts – though at least one school district, Henrico County, requires them. While even without seat belts, school buses remain the safest way to transport K-12 students to school on the roads, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) “recommended that 42 states that don’t require for lap and shoulder belts on large school buses add such a requirement.” Even so, when considering school budgets and safety issues, at least some School Boards (and/or the professional staffs) have balked at the $7,000-$11,000 cost for installing seat belts (or roughly 10% additional cost to the standard diesel-powered school bus), even in the face of the NTSB recommendation and some (mainly parent) passionate citizen activist calls for them.

Enter Dominion and the Dominion Electric School Bus program. The Dominion-provided ESBs will have seat belts. Point blank. In fact, Dominion will not partner with any school system that doesn’t allow seat belts.

“…one of the requirements to participate in our program is the school buses must be equipped with three point safety belts. Virginia does not require seatbelts in our buses, but safety is our top priority at Dominion and we’ve said if you want to participate in our program you have got to be willing to install seatbelts on the new buses moving forward.” [Dan Weekley, Dominion, 27 Jan 2020]

While the seat belt has generated enthusiasm from some amid discussions of the Dominion electric school bus (ESB) program, no matter what one thinks about seat belts, few seem to have noticed or remarked on how this is a blunt example of The Dominion Way. Leveraging resources gained via excessive profiteering from ratepayers, Dominion is dictating to public entities public expenditures about something that is quite explicitly a public policy issue and that merit determination by public officials, accountable to the public, after discussions open to and engaging stakeholders.

To be clear, no matter where one falls in a “to seat belt or not to seat belt” debate, it should concern all Virginians when a private corporation is able to (quite literally) dictate public policy and government investment.