Senators working fast on changes at SC state utility

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina senators are wasting little time in bringing together their plan to remake state-owned utility Santee Cooper.

A subcommittee spent about an hour Tuesday creating a framework of what they wanted in a reform bill.

Senate Finance Committee staffers and lawyers then spent several hours to write those suggestions into a bill and by 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, the full Finance Committee approved it.

The senators agreed to dump all 12 members off Santee Cooper’s board. A new seven member board would be appointed by House and Senate leaders and the governor and serve until new, staggered elections could be held.

“There has to be a consequence,” said state Republican Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort, noting the board approving a minority stake in two nuclear reactors that were halted during construction, leaving Santee Cooper with $4 billion in debt.

An oversight committee of senators and House members would be created to watch over the board and the utility, at least until a new regular board is in place. The new board members could serve unlimited five-year terms.

Santee Cooper would have to hold public hearings before raising rates and have utility watchdog agency the Office of Regulatory Staff study the request under the proposal.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will get its shot at reviewing the bill before it goes to the Senate floor, where weeks of debate are expected.

The House is working on its own Santee Cooper reforms. It is looking at requiring the utility to go before regulators for rate increases and fire the public utility’s board and have the new board review the further employment and contract of every senior executive.

The House also is considering creating a committee of House and Senate members to consider renegotiating a bid from NextaEra Energy of Florida to buy the public utility.

Senators rejected that bid too and have given no indication that they will consider any other sale offers.

The Senate bill would also require Santee Cooper to get the approval of utility watchdogs before entering any contracts longer than 10 years.

Santee Cooper has a contract to provide power to state electric cooperatives until 2058 that the co-ops said prevents the utility from caring about their concerns.

Senators are especially annoyed by a 60-year contract to sell gypsum, a byproduct from burning coal, to a private company. The gypsum market has turned down and the utility now pays $10 million to keep up its end of the deal.

The lack of specifics in the Senate left audience members comparing notes to see if they understood exactly what senators wanted.

“Do I have a motion we do it that way?” Democratic subcommittee chairman Sen. Nikki Setzler of West Columbia asked his colleagues at one point.


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