Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Weekly Column: Ethics, Electricity Bills and Budget Negotiations

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette and The Mt. Vernon Voice in the week of February 17, 2015.
Ethics, Electricity Bills and Budget Negotiations
The General Assembly is now in its fifth week of the 45-day session and starting budget negotiations.  Four of my bills are moving through the legislative process.   The Senate will consider two this week.

This past weekend about 75 people shared their views at my town hall meeting with Senators Toddy Puller and Adam Ebbin at the Mount Vernon Government Center.  We appreciate the interest and the feedback. 
Ethics "Reforms"
Each body passed ethics bills last week.  The legislation creates a new overall gift cap of $100 for all local and state elected officials in Virginia .  It allows an exception for educational travel approved in advance by an Ethics Advisory Council.  It also contains an exception for “widely attended events,” such as the banquets in our area for local charities, and the bill incorporates a proposal I made last session to prohibit the Governor from accepting a gift or contribution from an entity seeking a Governor’s Opportunity Fund grant.
 I was one of seven out of 140 legislators to vote “no.”  You can watch my full remarks on my You Tube Channel, but for me the bottom line was that this “reform” was toothless.  Virginia needs an independent body to enforce its ethics laws, not an “advisory council.”  We need an independent body with subpoena power and a requirement to complete a minimum number of audits each year.  The proposed system will continue to run on the assumption that all 2,000+ elected officials in Virginia are honest in their campaign and financial filings and problems will only be exposed by whistleblowers or ancillary investigations.  Virginians deserve better.
Keeping Electricity Affordable
Both chambers have passed legislation significantly rewriting the laws regulating investor-owned utilities.  I voted “no.”  In 2007, Virginia re-regulated electric utilities by creating a process under which the incumbent monopoly (in our area, Dominion Power) is reviewed every two years by the State Corporation Commission to determine if the company is  earning an excess profit.  If so, excess profits are refunded or electricity rates are cut.  The legislation passed abolishes these biennial reviews for five years and freezes rates.

While the legislation does provide consumers some protection from possible coal plant closure costs and requires some investments in solar, I am concerned we are getting shortchanged.  Two days before we voted, UBS Financial Services issued a very optimistic review of Dominion’s earning potential because our legislation “remove[d] one of the largest single risks” to Dominion’s earnings.  My priority is making home electric bills affordable, not enhancing shareholder value.   
On proposed budgets, the good news is that state revenue projections have partially recovered, which has allowed both bodies to propose long overdue raises for teachers (1.5%), state employees (1.5%-3.0%), college faculty (2%) and law enforcement personnel.  Many of these individuals have only seen one raise in seven years. 

I voted against the proposed budget for several reasons.  First, the budget deleted Governor Terry McAuliffe’s proposed Medicaid expansion.  Expansion would provide health insurance to 5,000 working adults in the 44th District and 400,000 statewide, bring $1.5 billion of Virginians’ federal taxpayer dollars home per year, create 30,000 jobs and free up $180 million of Virginia state taxpayer dollars for other priorities.  The 44th District has the second largest current Medicaid population of all delegates in Fairfax County, Arlington County, Loudoun County and Alexandria. 
The House budget also cuts pre-kindergarten by $6 million and funds higher education $30 million less than the Senate budget.  It contains language that would prohibit taxpayer funding for abortions and language that would prohibit Governor McAuliffe from rolling back regulations designed to shut down most abortion clinics in Virginia.  It also contains language purporting to allow any of the 140 members of the House or Senate to bring a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the Governor if a legislator or any agency interprets a state law contrary to the legislators’ opinion. That's the Attorney General's job. 
In these last two weeks, conference committees will conduct intense negotiations over the budget and some of the most contentious bills.   
I appreciate the hundreds of emails you have sent me.  Please continue to share your views at scott@scotsurovell.org
Thank you for allowing me to serve as your state delegate.

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