After three weeks into this General Assembly session, many of my bills are moving through committees or have been approved by the Senate and sent to the House of Delegates.
The regulation of monopoly utilities is one of the most complex topics for crafting good policy. Virginia’s two investor-owned utilities, Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, have combined revenues of nearly $20 billion from their customers. That is nearly half the state’s $43.5 billion in General Fund revenues, but unfortunately, the legislature invests very little time supervising this spending by Virginia’s residents and businesses.
Over the last decade, criticism of utility policy-making has risen, especially in compressed, 45 to 60-day sessions during which time there is limited public input. The Division of Legislative Services provides us an attorney who is prohibited from giving policy advice, leaving us to educate ourselves as best we can and largely dependent on stakeholder lobbyists and interest groups for policy analysis or other information. Working through the facts, noise and conflict is often very difficult. There has to be a better way.
This is why I introduced legislation to reinvigorate the Utility Regulation Commission that was created in 2003 to oversee utility policy. It has only met a handful of times in the last ten years and has no staff. My legislation would require the commission to conduct regular meetings, conduct independent studies, review potential legislative options, receive annual reports from our utility regulators and have seven professional staffers. Conservation advocates argue this could become the most important energy policy measure introduced in this session. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously approved the bill this week. It will be reviewed in the Finance Committee this week before moving on to the full Senate.
The Virginia Comptroller recently reinterpreted an exemption in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and began withholding the names of government employees using government credit cards. With the support of the Virginia Open Government Coalition, I have introduced a bill to require names to be disclosed. Two Senate committees passed the bill and the full Senate will consider it this week.
Earlier this year, Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued guidance to schools addressing parental notification of books that contain potentially obscene material used in educational settings. However, his guidance used a definition from a state law that prohibits the sale or loan of obscene books to children that labels any depiction of homosexuality as “sexual conduct,” even a book just depicts a gay couple eating dinner or playing golf. This statutory language reflects ancient prejudices that sought to dehumanize gay Virginians as deviants instead of normal human beings. The Senate passed my legislation to remove any depiction of homosexuality from the Code of Virginia on a bipartisan vote.
On a bipartisan vote, the Senate also passed my bill to expand the “Lemon Law” to Virginia’s small businesses so that manufacturers will be required to deal with defective work trucks or passenger vans.
In the early 1990s, Congress authorized states to create tax-deferred college savings plans which are now called “529 Plans.” Virginia was one of the first states in America to create a plan. The state partnered with American Funds and now has the most assets under management in America today. Ninety-four percent of participants in the mutual fund-style component of the plan are residents of other states.
Last year, Virginia’s independent auditor, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) studied Virginia’s 529 Plan with independent actuaries and determined that the plan had a $1.6 billion actuarial surplus that could be available for appropriation. Forty percent of these funds came largely from out-of-state investors and sixty percent derives from unspent revenues in Virginia’s Prepaid Tuition Plan. I introduced legislation to create a new endowment to be funded by this surplus which would eventually generate about 2,500 full scholarships per year to Pell Grant-eligible Virginia college students. A Senate committee will hold a hearing, the first level of consideration, this week.
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