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Senate Approves Bill to Help Utility Customers During Emergencies

Dominion Energy building n Richmond
Downtown headquarters of Dominion Energy in Richmond, Virginia (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM)

A bill requiring utility companies to offer extended payment plans for customers experiencing financial hardship during states of emergency passed the Virginia Senate on Wednesday.  

This comes a day after the State Corporation Commission extended a freeze on utility disconnections for unpaid bills during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sen. Jennifer McClellan’s bill would codify utility repayment plans in state law, ensuring companies continue to provide that option now and during any future state of emergency. The legislation does not include any requirement for companies to suspend disconnections. 

Fellow Democrat, Sen. Chap Peterson, voted for the bill but expressed reservations. 

“What worries me is that we are creating precedent after precedent where we essentially suspend the rules of economics in what we call an emergency. But the question is when is the emergency going to be over?”

Peterson argued the economy is improving, but there’s no end in sight to the current state of emergency.   

“While we do have people who are stressed, while we do have people that are in trouble, the bottom line is at some point we have to get back to normal,” Peterson said. “We have to have accountability. We have to tell people if you don’t pay your bill, eventually, your service is going to get cut off.”

McClellan noted, however, that there’s a record number of people who are unemployed and federal support is ending.  

“A lot of people were excluded from unemployment who cannot pay their utility bills. Are you going to second guess the State Corporation Commission who decided, we don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off water, electricity, or gas in the middle of a health pandemic?

A spokesman for the SCC said from March to the end of June, Dominion Energy had about $116 million in unpaid customer bills. Appalachian Power had $21 million.  

This legislation still has to be vetted by the House of Delegates before it goes to the governor’s desk for his signature.