SC House approves taking more bids to sell Santee Cooper
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House agreed Tuesday to reopen bids for a private company to buy state-owned utility Santee Cooper and, in the meantime, replace the entire board that runs the electric company.
The House voted 89-26 on the latest bill to either overhaul or sell the agency, an effort that has been slow to make it to the finish line because of lawmakers who don’t think the state can get a good enough deal, those loyal to an agency formed in the Great Depression to get power to rural areas of the state and because of the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill now moves on to the Senate, where all those difficulties are even more amplified.
The House proposal creates a committee of three senators and three House members that can seek and accept any bids to buy Santee Cooper over the next 10 years. Any bids would have to be approved by the entire General Assembly.
The bill immediately ends the terms of all members of the board that runs Santee Cooper board, kicking them off as the new members are confirmed. It also requires new board members to have experience with utilities, engineering, accounting or law.
The proposal also gives regulators more of a say in Santee Cooper’s rates if it isn’t sold. Right now, the board sets rates.
Some lawmakers have long said the state needs to get out of the power business, a position that gained more support after Santee Cooper lost billions of dollars investing as a minority partner in two nuclear reactors that were never finished last decade.
Opponents of the bill said Santee Cooper has made changes and the state spent more than $14 million over the past two years on bids to buy Santee Cooper. An outside group weighed the offers and suggested one by NextEra Energy of Florida was the best. Lawmakers were underwhelmed by the proposal.
“We’ve been there we’ve done this. We’ve plowed that ground,” said Republican Rep. Sylleste Davis, whose district is in Moncks Corner, where Santee Cooper is headquartered.
Davis and others suggested removing the sale committee language from the bill and leaving the reform components. but lost those votes.
Santee Cooper has heard the calls to change and they get high marks for reliability and have the lowest rates in the state, said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews.
“Over the past year, Santee Cooper has been doing some things right,” Ott said.
But House leadership doesn’t see it that way, saying a vote against the bill is a vote to be OK with the poor running of Santee Cooper.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said after the vote that he hopes the Senate takes it up quickly.
“I have made no secret of my disdain for Santee’s current leadership and the need for their immediate replacement. I have also repeatedly called for more transparency and accountability in how Santee Cooper determines rates. Today, the House resoundingly delivered on both issues,” the Republican Speaker from Hartsville said in a statement.
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