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SC senators take 1st crack at Santee Cooper future questions

February 18, 2020 GMT
FILE - This April 9, 2012 file photo shows construction well underway for new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. South Carolina could pay off billions in debt and end uncertainty over lawsuits if it sells its state-owned utility, Santee Cooper, but the move would cost ratepayers more money over the next 20 years, state fiscal officials say in a report released Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)
FILE - This April 9, 2012 file photo shows construction well underway for new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. South Carolina could pay off billions in debt and end uncertainty over lawsuits if it sells its state-owned utility, Santee Cooper, but the move would cost ratepayers more money over the next 20 years, state fiscal officials say in a report released Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)
FILE - This April 9, 2012 file photo shows construction well underway for new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. South Carolina could pay off billions in debt and end uncertainty over lawsuits if it sells its state-owned utility, Santee Cooper, but the move would cost ratepayers more money over the next 20 years, state fiscal officials say in a report released Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The first of more than a dozen hearings by the General Assembly on whether South Carolina should sell its state-owned utility had senators on Tuesday questioning the officials who reviewed the proposals.

The Department of Administration released a 111-page report Tuesday detailing NextEra Energy of Florida’s bid to buy Santee Cooper, Dominion Energy of Virginia’s offer to manage it and one deal to let Santee Cooper reform itself. The agency then briefed lawmakers from both the House and Senate on Friday, but no questions were allowed.

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The Senate Finance Committee got the first crack at getting more information and spent nearly six hours discussing the plansat their initialmeeting.

Senators asked about a 42-page bill NextEra says lawmakers must pass for the deal to go through. The bill includes allowing NextEra to bypass regulators and have lawmakers set some rates and the company to charge for a new $2 billion power plant while it is being constructed.

Some lawmakers said bypassing regulators is what got Santee Cooper into $4 billion of debt for its minority share in two nuclear plants that were never finished.

Other senators questioned liabilities NextEra would leave with South Carolina taxpayers if it bought Santee Cooper, including more than $300 million for employee pensions.

“Any of the 85 years of the sins of Santee Cooper would become the problems of the people of South Carolina,” said Republican Sen. Larry Grooms whose district includes Santee Cooper’s headquarters in Moncks Corner.

Questions also included NextEra’s offer to pay off Santee Cooper’s debt and how both Santee Cooper and NextEra plan to use a diversity of power sources to stem a rapid rise in electric rates. Santee Cooper’s proposed rates would be about 1% less than NextEra’s over 20 years.

There was little discussion of Dominion’s offer, which did not include details of a 20-year rate plan or an offer to pay off Santee Cooper’s debt.

The Senate Finance Committee plans several meetings over the next two weeks, hearing from all three companies. The House Ways and Means Committee has scheduled seven similar meetings starting next week after it is finished with the state budget.

The state law setting up the sale process requires the two budget committees to approve a recommendation within 30 days of the report’s release.

Republican Sen. Greg Hembree of Horry County warned people watching the meeting to not try to predict what senators would do based on their questions because such a complex issue requires a lot of discussion and thought.

“I think everyone up here is struggling to make some kind of good decision.,” Hembree said.

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