- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — Legislation pushed by Virginia’s dominant power company to end on its own terms the state’s experiment with electric-utility deregulation easily cleared two General Assembly committees yesterday.

The House Commerce and Labor Committee voted 18 to 4 to advance a revamped version of the bill to the House floor. The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee unanimously endorsed an identical bill about three hours later.

Dominion Resources pressed for approval of twin bills that would establish a “hybrid” version of regulation. Critics say the measure gives the State Corporation Commission (SCC) no real authority and allows Dominion to reap huge profits.

“If you pass this legislation, you will be passing the biggest piece of corporate welfare we’ve ever seen,” Irene Leech, president of the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, told the House committee.

Supporters of the measure argued that it includes substantial consumer protections and that utility bills would increase after rate caps expire, regardless of the type of regulatory scheme in place.

Chief Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims, who presided over behind-the-scenes negotiations that produced the final version of the legislation, said increasing fuel prices and “exploding demand” for electricity will mean bigger electric bills for consumers.

“There is nothing in front of this General Assembly that would reduce rates in the environment we have now,” Mr. Mims said. However, he said the legislation “protects consumers to a significant extent.”

Opponents of the bill were not convinced.

“This is the utility company’s bill, carefully designed to protect the utility’s interests,” said Delegate Harvey B. Morgan, Gloucester Republican and chairman of the House committee. “This bill is no favor to the citizens of Virginia.”

Mr. Morgan favors a return to the regulatory scheme that existed before the legislature deregulated the industry in 1999. Deregulation failed because the expected competition never developed.

The legislation would remove rate caps on Dec. 31, 2008 — two years earlier than scheduled. The SCC would set electric utilities’ authorized profits no lower than the average earned by their peers in the region to help them compete for the capital needed to build new power plants.

Any increase in authorized profits would be limited to the inflation rate. However, utilities would be allowed an “enhanced return on investment” for major new generation projects approved by the SCC.

One provision added in a final rewrite of the bill over the weekend would limit a fuel rate increase this summer to 4 percent, spreading out any additional increase over 2 years. Another would require the SCC to conduct a rate case immediately after capped rates expire.

Dominion spokesman David Botkins said the legislation “returns to the SCC its regulatory control while providing rate stability for our customers.” He predicted the measure will have minimal impact on residential electric bills.

• Deadly force

A Senate committee yesterday rejected legislation providing civil immunity to residents who kill intruders after a prosecutor argued the measure could have the unintended consequence of protecting offenders.

The Courts of Justice Committee voted 10 to 5 to shelve Delegate Bill Janis’ proposal.

The Henrico County Republican said a person who shoots an intruder in his or her home should not have to defend a wrongful-death suit. His bill would not have prevented a criminal prosecution if circumstances warranted one.

But Henry County prosecutor Robert Bushnell said the legislation would provide immunity to a drug dealer who shoots a police officer who enters a home unlawfully in a warrant mix-up.

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