Dominion Virginia Power's plan draws skepticism from some of Virginia's legislators

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - A work in progress is the way legislation to end Virginia's experiment with electric deregulation was described more than once recently.

A big if is whether the work will be finished in time to get a complicated re-regulation bill through this year's 45-day General Assembly session.

Dominion Virginia Power unveiled an outline for returning Virginia's power plants to state regulation. However, a consensus had already been forming among lawmakers and others that the five-year-old deregulation experiment has been a bust, failing to deliver on the competition and lower rates that were promised at its outset.

Lawmakers including Del. Harvey B. Morgan, R-Middlesex, and Del. Clarke N. Hogan, R-Halifax, have indicated that they will offer their own legislation this year to protect Virginia consumers from the noncompetitive market they would otherwise face if the state maintains its current deregulated course.

Hogan said he wants to make sure legislation that is passed ensures low rates and reliable power supplies. The average consumer doesn't have the $500-an-hour lobbyists that filled the meeting room representing them, he said at the meeting's close.

Dominion Virginia Power's legislative proposal appears to be a recognition of the mounting concerns about the failure of deregulation and an effort to get out front of the issue with lawmakers.

Skeptical questioning from some lawmakers faced the utility recently as it more fully explained its plan for restoring electric-utility regulation to the General Assembly commission that has overseen deregulation.

The utility's proposal would give the State Corporation Commission less authority than it had before the assembly passed its 1999 deregulation law.

Dominion Virginia Power is proposing legislation that would, for the first time, put a formula into state law to set the profit margin utilities would be allowed, which is then used to set electric rates. The measure also in- cludes provisions for several rate add-ons to reimburse utilities for specific costs, such as storm damage and plant construction.

Paul Hylton, who explained the proposal, said Dominion is concerned that traditional regulation has not kept up with changes in the power industry and would not provide the returns utilities need to attract investment and build new power plants. Virginia has to be as attractive to investors as other states are, he said.

Hylton said the proposal provides ways to increase rates but does not give the State Corporation Commission authority to lower rates, because doing so would eliminate an incentive for operating more efficiently.

Because the Dominion Virginia Power bill is controversial, Commission Chairman Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, instructed the utility and other interested parties to begin an effort to develop a compromise bill. Deputy Attorney General William C. Mims will moderate those talks.

In this year's 45-day legislative session, some sort of legislation that can serve as a vehicle for compromise talks must be introduced by this Friday's bill deadline. A bill must be completed by Feb. 6, the final day for each house of the legislature to consider its own legislation.


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