Public utility’s future in SC to dominate Legislature’s time
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — No matter whether South Carolina lawmakers choose to sell state-owned utility Santee Cooper, have another company manage it or let the utility continue to operate itself, one thing is certain — that complex decision is going to dominate the Legislature’s time.
The first of what will likely be more than a dozen meetings over the next month about the utility’s future took place Thursday before an audience of about 70 senators and House members and a few reporters.
No questions were allowed as officials spent nearly two hours going over a 111-page report the South Carolina Department of Administration that was released T uesday. It details the best bid to buy Santee Cooper from NextEra Energy in Florida, a bid to manage it from Dominion Energy of Virginia or let Santee Cooper reform itself and stay a publicly owned entity.
The state law setting up the bidding process requires the budget committees in each chamber to vote on their recommendations within 30 days.
The House Ways and Means Committee set up eight meetings, while the Senate Finance Committee was finalizing a schedule that includes multiple meetings, including a Tuesday session that will interrupt floor debate and take all day.
“This was a huge task and it is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my 32-year career with the state. It also is the most important task I’ve had to do because there is much at stake here,” Department of Administration Executive Director Marcia Adams said.
Santee Cooper is $4 billion in debt mostly because of its minority stake in a pair of nuclear power plants abandoned during construction before they generated any power. Supporters of selling the utility worry that the debt may end up on the back of South Carolina taxpayers.
NextEra’s bid would pay off that debt and also offer more than $540 million to settle a lawsuit by ratepayers over the nuclear debacle and $400 million in additional relief for customers who use Santee Cooper’s power.
But NextEra’s offer would cut Santee Cooper’s 1,700-employee workforce by more than 40% and the company could not guarantee rates over the next 20 years below the rates that Santee Cooper proposed.
Officials who reviewed the bids for the state said that by 2040, people who use Santee Cooper power would pay less than 1% more overall if the utility was sold than if it remained public.
But they stressed many factors, from how much it costs to produce power to technology to acts of God could change those assumptions.
Santee Cooper’s offer only cuts about 300 jobs through attrition. But it provides no guarantee of a settlement for the lawsuit.
In its management proposal, Dominion wouldn’t charge a fee to run Santee Cooper. But that bid had fewer details, including no plans on how to handle Santee Cooper’s debt and no details on how much electric rates will increase.
Before the presentation, Adams told lawmakers that Santee Cooper delayed providing documents and money for the process and also tried to cancel a presentation that Adams said “required me to make countless phone calls just two days after I buried my mother.”
Adams insisted her office did not take a position on what should happen next.
“I do not say these things to impress the decision that is before the General Assembly, but instead to remind everyone it is the decision and actions made by Santee Cooper that brought us here today,” Adams said.
Santee Cooper has fierce defenders in the Legislature. The utility was created to provide power to the poorest rural sections of the state during the Great Depression and is heavily involved in economic development and charity work.
Senators ignored an education bill set for its 14th day of debate on Thursday for an hourlong discussion of scheduling and rules for the next month, which include none of the utilities involved can talk to lawmakers individually and questions and discussions must go through the public meetings.
“Next week is not an off week,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield. “Next week is intended to be a week where everybody is at the least listening and paying attention to what is going on.”
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