Fight over Santee Cooper starts before 2021 session begins

Dancing Trousers

COLUMBIA (AP) — Any questions on whether South Carolina senators and House members will have long and likely bitter fights over whether to sell state-owned utility Santee Cooper have been answered before the 2021 session even begins.

House Speaker Jay Lucas made a rare appearance before a subcommittee Wednesday to defend his work on shaping the future of Santee Cooper, whether it is sold or not.

The Hartsville Republican reminded everyone he wants the board that runs the utility kicked out after he said they misled lawmakers and regulators about a plan to borrow more than $600 million, mostly to get lower interest rates on its current debt but also included $100 million in bonds for new projects not known by legislators.

“Either Santee Cooper’s leadership is incapable or they are dishonest. In either event, they need to go,” Lucas said.

Lucas was responding to a Dec. 31 Senate subcommittee meeting where one of the state’s most powerful senators, Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, suggested while the House’s motives were pure, its work might be incomplete by not scrutinizing NextEra Energy, the giant Florida company that has emerged as Santee Cooper’s chief possible buyer.

“Whatever the House decides they are going to do with or without the facts — folks will really want to know what is going on here,” the Horry County Republican said as his committee approved a letter requesting 12 different items of information from NextEra and suggesting not answering should drop them from any future bids.

The House subcommittee Wednesday passed a 48-page bill that both reopens the process to sell Santee Cooper and tries to overhaul both the board that leads the utility and how it operates. Santee Cooper still can set its own rates, but that process gets oversight from regulators under the proposal.

But that vote is just the first step in a legislative journey where both the destination and how long it will take to get there is unknown. The 2021 General Assembly doesn’t even start its session until next Tuesday. Lawmakers had hoped to deal with it in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented any significant debate after March.

“This is going to be a long, difficult dance,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Kirkman Finlay, D-Columbia.

Two House subcommittee members voted against the bill. Rep. Heather Ammons Crawford of Socastee and Rep. Joe Daning from Goose Creek represent areas with Santee Cooper customers and employees. They are both Republicans, showing how the issue falls less by party lines and more through protecting a utility created by the state during the Great Depression to finally bring electricity to rural areas or whether the state should be in the power business at all.

The Senate subcommittee on Dec. 31 approved a letter by Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, demanding that NextEra turn over any communication between its employees or lobbyists and lawmakers, the governor and the state agency that spent $15 million last year to analyze bids to buy Santee Cooper and decided the Florida utility made the best offer to be the only possible buyer.

The senators also requested any payments or campaign contributions NextEra made to lawmakers or their companies as well as money they have given to business groups, political blogs or to influence social media.

NextEra has not publicly commented on the request.

Sen. Chip Campsen is a Republican from the Isle of Palms who often cites the Federalist Papers in his push to keep government where he thinks the writers of the U.S. Constitution intended. He said he thinks both Santee Cooper ratepayers and state taxpayers can benefit if an overhaul of the utility makes it more efficient.

“We make decisions based on facts on the cases we do. And I don’t know what the facts are,” Campsen said at the Dec. 31 Senate subcommittee meeting. “I’m not committed to sell it. I’m not committed to keep it.”

Santee Cooper has been heavily scrutinized since it joined as a minority partner in building two nuclear reactors and ended up with nothing but $4 billion in debt when SCANA Corp. abandoned the project. Two former SCANA executives have agreed to plead guilty to fraud in the failed project.

Santee Cooper has about 190,000 direct customers, but about 2 million people rely on its power through electric cooperatives in every county in South Carolina.

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