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Cuccinelli, lawmakers push to end utility rate freeze

Sarah Rankin, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- A bill undoing a 2015 law that froze electric rate reviews died swiftly this legislative session, but opponents of the law, including former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, said Tuesday it's not too late to see it repealed.

Cuccinelli, a Republican, joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers at a Capitol news conference where they called on Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to reverse the law he signed two years ago. The measure prohibits the state from lowering or raising Dominion Virginia Power or Appalachian Power's base rates — which make up the majority of a customer's bill — for several years.

It was spurred by concerns that President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan would cost electric customers billions of dollars and prematurely close coal-fired electric plants. Because the Trump administration has vowed to scrap those regulations, opponents of the law say the rate reviews should be restored.

The deadline for lawmakers to introduce new bills has passed, but McAuliffe can do so at any time. He could also amend other pieces of related legislation or call for a special session.

"He was part of making this mistake in 2015. It's extremely appropriate that he be part of fixing it, and he has more power and position to do that than anyone in this process right now," said Cuccinelli, an outspoken conservative who unsuccessfully ran against McAuliffe in 2013.

A consultant hired by large industrial customers calculated that the law could cost customers $2.4 billion in unnecessary payments by Dominion customers between 2016 and 2022, and more than $300 million by Appalachian Power customers between 2016 and 2020. State regulatory officials have also said the cost to Dominion's customers could be well over a $1 billion more than they should have to pay.

While supporters endorsed the law as a way to ensure constant electric prices for years, critics called it a massive giveaway to Dominion — the most politically powerful corporation in Virginia and the biggest corporate donor in the state.

"When you look at all the money they put into politics, folks, they're not donating to advance an agenda. They're investing," Cuccinelli said. "Those investments have returned handsomely for these companies. And the people of Virginia ... have suffered for it."

David Botkins, a spokesman for Dominion, said the law is stabilizing low electric rates and promoting renewable energy. Parts of the law were aimed at increasing solar energy production and provided aid to low-income electric users.

When it comes to the Clean Power Plan, no one knows what comes next and it would be "irresponsible to throw out Virginia's laws before anyone knows what the rules will be going forward," he said.

John Shepelwich, a spokesman for Appalachian Power, declined to comment, saying the company hadn't been notified of any concrete proposal to do away with the law.

McAuliffe has said he supports the idea of bringing back rate reviews and would sign such a bill if it made it to his desk. But his spokesman Brian Coy said Tuesday lawmakers hadn't shown there's enough support for undoing the law.

Sen. Chap Petersen, who sponsored the repeal measure that died, responded that it would take McAuliffe's help to make a difference against two of the state's biggest public interests.

"This is an issue where only the governor can change the dynamic," he said.