Senate panel kills bill barring Dominion campaign donations
January 22, 2020

On the 10th anniversary of a landmark Supreme Court case that allowed for unlimited political donations by corporations, a Virginia committee killed a proposal to ban campaign donations from Dominion Energy.

The Senate Privileges and Elections Committee on Tuesday voted down Senate Bill 25 from Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, in a 10-5 vote. The bill would have prohibited candidates from taking donations from public utilities — most notably Dominion, which opposed the bill.

So did a bipartisan group of senators, with Democrats Janet Howell of Fairfax , Monty Mason of Williamsburg, Scott Surovell of Fairfax and Lionell Spruill Sr. of Chesapeake joining Republicans in opposing the measure.

“This bill treats some companies differently than others,” said Christopher Nolen, a McGuireWoods lobbyist who spoke on behalf of Dominion.

The move came on the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which found that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting companies’ political contributions.

Petersen, a Dominion critic, said last week that the Richmond-based company’s contributions — the utility was the largest corporate donor in the 2019 election — lead to public policy being manipulated in a “negative way.”

Legislators appoint members to the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Dominion.

Tuesday’s vote drew criticism from a political action committee funded by Michael Bills, a Charlottesville-based investor who has given millions to candidates who pledge to refuse donations from Dominion.

“Every Senator that voted to allow Dominion Energy and other utility monopolies’ money into Virginia politics voted to weaken public trust in Virginia’s government,” said Clean Virginia Executive Director Brennan Gilmore.

Del. Josh Cole, D-Fredericksburg, has filed a similar bill in the House of Delegates. That measure, House Bill 111, has not yet been voted on.

The Senate elections committee also killed Petersen’s bill, Senate Bill 205, that would have capped donations from individuals and companies at $20,000 per election cycle. Like with the Dominion donations bill, a bipartisan group of legislators voted against the proposal.

The full Senate unanimously approved on Monday a requirement that lawmakers disclose in the opening days of the General Assembly contributions of $1,000 or more that they receive in the immediate run-up to the legislative session.

Currently, contributions received after Jan. 1 do not have to made public until mid-July, after bills delegates and senators carry — perhaps shaped by hefty donations — may have become law.

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, originally wanted the pre-session donations to be reported within 24 hours of receipt, much as large-dollar contributions are in the final countdown to an election.

He said his proposal, rewritten to mandate disclosure approximately a week into the annual session of the legislature, could still “add some transparency.”

The bill, passed Monday with no debate, goes to the House of Delegates.

Virginia legislators and statewide officials are barred from raising campaign funds while the General Assembly is in session.