Senate Leader: Time to sell S. Carolina state-owned utility
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The leader of the South Carolina Senate said lawmakers have studied whether to sell state-owned Santee Cooper enough and it is time to start collecting bids and making a decision on the utility’s future.
The bill introduced Wednesday by Senate President Harvey Peeler would authorize the governor to ask for offers and “execute the sale.” Under current law, the South Carolina House and Senate get the final say.
At a Senate Finance Committee meeting two hours later, Peeler and others insisted they weren’t giving up their oversight of the sale to Gov. Henry McMaster, who has been pushing to unload Santee Cooper since the summer of 2017 after its partnership with a private company to build two nuclear reactors ended with billions of dollars spent but not a watt of power generated.
The committee did not vote on the bill, promising more discussion and possible changes.
Peeler said he determined something had to be done after meetings last week and Tuesday with Santee Cooper executives, who struggled to give senators information they were seeking about how much rates would have to be raised to cover the roughly $8 billion debt and other costs if nothing changes and how much money the utility has borrowed recently.
“It was embarrassing to watch it,” the Republican from Gaffney said. “Yesterday was 10 times worse than last week.”
Senators had been advocating a more cautious approach. Just last month, Peeler created a nine-member committee to review what to do with Santee Cooper, emphasizing the only goal was to protect taxpayers.
In 27 days, Peeler’s mind changed.
“For almost two years, Santee Cooper has been looming over us. Their leadership is in crisis. They’re crippled by debt, and it is clear to me that Santee Cooper cannot see their own way for our ratepayers and taxpayers,” Peeler said on the Senate floor.
Much of the committee debate later in the day centered on what the bill would do. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said it would not turn the sale over to the governor, but use workers who deal with bidding for government services and goods at the Department of Administration to negotiate and then present offers to the governor and lawmakers.
But other senators disagreed, pointing out language saying that after collecting bids, “The Governor shall then execute the sale to the bidder who best safeguards the interests of Santee Cooper’s ratepayers and the State’s taxpayers.”
“It’s not fuzzy. It’s not full of legalese,” said Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper’s headquarters in Moncks Corner.
Although Peeler’s resolution likely accelerates the timetable for a decision on Santee Cooper, what it means for the outcome is less clear. Several senators have been skeptical or even hostile to selling the utility, which is interwoven in the fabric of poorer areas of the state since its creation to provide power during the Great Depression.
The utility serves about 2 million people, including selling the majority of the power used by the South Carolina Electric Cooperatives. The co-ops can end that power buying agreement if Santee Cooper is sold and they don’t like the new owner.
The speed of Wednesday’s events worried some senators.
“If this is not the most important vote I’ll make in the Senate in my career here, it is going to be in the top three. This is going to affect probably two generations of South Carolinians and maybe more,” Republican Sen. Greg Hembree of Little River said. “To just say we had a bad meeting yesterday and to sell it.”
Leatherman interrupted. “There is a lot more to it than a couple of bad meetings,” the Republican from Florence said.
Grooms said he will fight the bill as written because he doesn’t think the state should lose negotiating power by saying it is selling now and needs more time to look thoroughly at one of the most complex things they have been asked to do.
A consultant hired by a committee to anonymously ask for potential bids found four credible offers , three of which promised Santee Cooper customers would not have to pay off the debt for the unbuilt nuclear reactors. Details of those offers have not been released.
McMaster praised Peeler’s proposal, saying in a statement that the Senate president showed “clear and decisive leadership in response to a thoughtful, deliberate, and ongoing process to determine the value of Santee Cooper and the best way to protect South Carolina’s ratepayers and taxpayers.”