RVA Politics is a blog about politics in the state of Virginia And the capital city of Richmond.

The author is a political scientist. Please don't hold that against him.


How Politics Works (for one company, anyway)

In the US we like our companies to be privately owned or publicly traded, not state-run. (Unless they sell booze in VA.) But utility companies present a problem. The provision of things like power and water demand a huge infrastructure, which makes it difficult to create a truly competitive marketplace. ("Don't like your current energy supplier? Try Bob's Gas Pipeline!" Nope.) So instead our energy is often provided by public corporations, overseen by various government regulations.

Which brings us to Dominion Virginia Power, a Fortune 500 company headquartered here in Richmond. Because it's the main energy supplier to the state, it's regulated by state and federal law. But because it's privately owned, Dominion is also the top private donor to Virginia lawmakers. As a result (and because the GA is in session this month), we're hearing a lot about Dominion these days.

First, Dominion is embroiled in a fight with Nelson County landowners for a proposed pipeline. Local community groups are opposed to the pipeline, and will be at the GA next week trying to limit the power of eminent domain. Specifically, Dominion claims that its surveyors can go on private land even if the landowners try to deny them; a 2004 law (which opponents claim is unconstitutional) apparently gives them this right. Citizen groups can sometimes overcome powerful corporations, but it doesn't often work, and Dominion has lots of powerful partners.

At the same time, Dominion is working through VA Beach Senator Frank Wagner to shield its revenues from public view. Some background: since Dominion is a private corporation, it of course wants to increase profits. But because it also operates as a public utility, there's no competition to put pressure on rates. So state law says that the company gets audited every other year, to make sure the company is only making a healthy profit and not gouging customers; any excessive profits are returned to customers through rebates and/or rate reductions. (The 2009 audit led to a rate reduction, for example.)

Now Wagner has a bill that threatens to stop the audits for the next few years, to "protect the utility company from what he called onerous proposed federal regulations on coal-fired power plants intended to stem climate change," whatever that means. (Of course, Dominion is a reliable contributor to Wagner's campaign coffers.)

Blue Virginia calls this what it is: a monopoly, one with huge influence among the state's power players. (Including a delegate who is the son of the company CEO.) Luckily our state reps are working diligently to get money out of politics - by reducing the already meager incentive for small campaign donations. Apparently they are still happy to take Dominion's money.

This just in: VA Tea Partiers not as racist as other Tea Partiers

Inside GA, all business; outside, it's all Joe