Daily Press: May 1, 2019

Daily Press: Shifting balance in the money chase for General Assembly energy policy

By Dave Ress, Daily Press

When money talks in the Virginia General Assembly these days, it may be saying something different about energy, and in particular, about the company that’s long been the biggest corporate giver to Virginia politicians’ campaign funds.

The big donations during the first quarter of the year by Charlottesville investment manager Michael Bills and the Clean Virginia Fund he founded as a counterweight to Dominion Energy’s legendary political muscle could be signals of that potential change.

So, too, is a look back at last year. That’s when Bills and Clean Virginia made a big splash, offering to contribute to any politician who declined to accept contributions from Dominion or to own its stock.

So far this year, they’ve given $132,000 to legislators seeking re-election and another $115,000 to members of the House seeking state Senate seats, according to campaign finance reports filed with the State Board of Elections and compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.

Dominion, as has been its practice in recent years, gave nothing in the first quarter. (That’s when the General Assembly meets, and legislators aren’t supposed to accept money then. For many of the firms that lobby during the session, there’s been a growing sense that a campaign contribution too close to the start or end of a legislative session can look a bit unseemly)

Last year, meanwhile, Dominion gave a total of $172,535 to legislators’ campaign funds. That’s the lowest sum since 2004, and is down 42 percent from a peak in 2011.

Bills and Clean Virginia gave $298,000 to legislators last year.

“I am providing the initial funding to help end Dominion’s open-air bribery,” Bills wrote in an essay explaining his efforts last year.

“Clean Virginia will provide alternative funding for legislators who pledge to take no money from Dominion, its executives, its PAC, or its lobbyists; nor own any Dominion stock. This pledge in no way restricts how legislators vote on any issue, but it should embolden legislators to fight for the people and communities they were elected to serve.”

Patterns of giving could matter, too.

Most Dominion contributions are for $1,000 or $500. Last year, Dominion gave four legislators got more than $10,000– Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax County, who got $22,500, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, who got $10,500 and the chairmen of the House and Senate Commerce and Labor Committees, Del Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, and state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, who each got $10,000.

Bills gave four Senate hopefuls $25,000 each so far in this election cycle. He gave 11 House members $20,000 each. He gave five more General Assembly members $10,000 each. Clean Virginia gave one House member $10,059. Most are relative newcomers — and the kind of newcomers he may be betting will take a different approach to energy policy.