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A Fairfax lawmaker wants to place the State Corporation Commission under the Freedom of Information Act.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
The State Corporation Commission’s impact on the everyday lives of Virginians is vast, covering everything from utility rates to insurance policies to financial rules for banks and payday lenders. Yet the commission is poorly understood. Adding to the confusion is the SCC’s independent status under the state constitution, a status that the Virginia Supreme Court has ruled exempts it from the Freedom of Information Act.
Bringing sunshine to the SCC would be neither as easy as advocates contend nor as difficult as opponents insist. Greater transparency and public understanding are goals worth the effort, but it would require both a political and public will that unfortunately are not yet in evidence.
Voluminous amounts of information are available on the SCC’s website related to corporate filings and utility cases, and rate hearings are open to the public. But not all communication between regulators and the regulated are accessible, and uncertainty over what information is and is not available feeds consumer distrust and frustration when utility bills escalate.
Del. Scott Surovell filed legislation this year seeking to place the SCC under FOIA. Under opposition from utilities and telecommunication groups, the Fairfax Democrat narrowed the scope of his proposal to cover only operational functions such as procurement, but not regulatory matters. Nevertheless, a subcommittee of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council could not reach agreement on his bills. The full council will discuss the matter today, but so far momentum has not been in Surovell’s favor.
The delegate fears that calls for further study are merely a delay tactic, giving lobbyists time to peck his proposal to bits. That’s a valid concern, but it’s also true that he has tackled a complex topic that requires a methodical approach. Stall tactic or not, it will be impossible to win lawmakers’ support without proper legwork.
The SCC is a quasi-judicial agency, with three judges who oversee regulatory decisions. Surovell says it is not his intent to open up deliberations among the three judges to an audience, one of the chief concerns raised by opponents.
But there are other thorny issues that require scrutiny. Should FOIA be formally applied to the SCC, as Surovell wishes, or should separate, existing laws guiding the agency’s records be clarified, as SCC officials have suggested they could support? Should SCC records, but not meetings, be covered by FOIA, or would that set a bad precedent and generate requests from other state agencies seeking similar arrangements?
Opponents of increased openness say it would expose the SCC to political interference. Those who follow regulatory matters know well that pushy legislators and lobbyists already meddle with impunity, in part because they know they are unlikely to be caught. In the end, that’s the best argument in favor of forging ahead with efforts to apply greater scrutiny to a government entity that could benefit from better public understanding.
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