Associated Press: September 3, 2020

Northam Pushes for Overdue Electric Bill Forgiveness

By Alan Suderman, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam wants Dominion Energy to cover unpaid residential electric bills with $320 million that regulators say the company previously overcharged.

The governor is pushing for new budget language requiring the state’s largest electric monopoly to return most of the $503 million that state regulators recently said Dominion had earned above authorized levels in 2017 through 2019. That provision is part of a broader effort by Northam to ban customer disconnections over unpaid utility bills during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Governor Northam is committed to debt relief for the most vulnerable Virginians,” his spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, said in a statement. “He is hopeful the legislature will agree to direct a portion of Dominion’s over-earnings to protect these families now, when they need it most.”

Dominion declined to comment.

Under the governor’s plan, which still has to be approved by lawmakers, customers who have bills that are more than 60 days overdue as of Sept. 30 would have them forgiven. Northam’s plan would also set aside money to cover bills that are 90 days past due when he lifts a moratorium on disconnections, presumably sometime next year.

The governor’s proposal would require all utilities in the state to offer repayment plans for unpaid bills that don’t charge interest or late fees.

His proposal for Dominion’s overearnings would be a dramatic departure how the state has traditionally treated the company and could have a significant impact on its bottom line.

Virginia’s regulatory structure has long been viewed as utility-friendly by Wall Street. Dominion has routinely pushed through legislation that allows it to manage its earnings in a way that limits state regulators’ ability to mandate refunds or rate reductions even if they find that customers paid too much.

The $503 million figure the State Corporation Commission said Dominion overearned is based on preliminary calculations and could change during a formal rate review scheduled for next year.

Will Cleveland, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who specializes in utility issues, praised Northam’s proposed change.

“We have a broken regulatory system that has allowed a utility to overcharge customers by a half-billion dollars, at least, in three years. And that same system would give customers little if any of that back, ever,” Cleveland said. “(Northam’s proposal) would really help people.”

Northam also sent a letter Thursday to the Virginia Supreme Court asking to extend a moratorium on eviction proceedings from Sept. 7 to Oct. 1. The governor said the extra time is needed in part understand how the Trump administration’s surprise national moratorium issued earlier this week will be implemented.