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Powerful SC Lawmakers Close in on Santee Cooper Compromise

 Jay Lucas and Shane Massey File Photo 01-27-21
Jeffrey Collins/AP
FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2021 file photo, South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas, left, and Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, right, talk before a news conference in Columbia, S.C. Lucas and Massey are both on a conference committee that will try to work on a compromise on a bill to reform state-owned utility Santee Cooper. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File).

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A powerful group of South Carolina House and Senate leaders met Wednesday, pledging to take differences in each chamber's proposal to overhaul state-owned utility Santee Cooper to their members before getting together again next week to vote on a compromise.

But the biggest difference — whether to create a committee of lawmakers to continue to accept bids to sell Santee Cooper to a private firm — appears to be off the table for the senators on the conference committee.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin sounded like he was ready to adjourn after less than an hour of talking about mostly technical differences between the proposals when House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith asked if they were going to take up the House proposal to keep taking sale offers even after NextEra Energy of Florida withdrew its bid.

“Are we going to be able to talk you into going with that provision?” said Smith, a Republican from Sumter. “Are we going to further have discussions on that at some point?”

Rankin smiled on Zoom and Smith chuckled sitting in a chair in a Senate committee room. The Senate roundly rejected the sale committee in its version.

“We can talk about that in January of 2022, ‘24, ’26 . I recognize the goal there, again, fortunately the Senate was pretty clear on that. The only would-be buyer is walking with their money. They have taken the $25 million and are heading back south,” said Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach.

Rankin said passing this bill would enhance Santee Cooper's value for a sale in the future. Smith and the other House members didn't respond.

The other members of the conference committee are all powerful, long-serving lawmakers — Republican House Speaker Jay Lucas of Hartsville, Democratic House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford of Columbia, Republican Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey of Edgefield and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Brad Hutto of Orangeburg.

The Senate and House agreed on a number of points. They both give state regulators more power over Santee Cooper, from requiring them to review the utility’s future plans to generate power and their forecasts for power use to requiring public hearings and a watchdog to question utility executives about rate increases.

Both versions kick off the nine people on the 10-member Santee Cooper board who were serving before 2017, when the utility was the minority partner in building two nuclear reactors. Those projects were abandoned before generating power, losing billions of dollars.

The biggest sticking point the members discussed Wednesday was how long a special committee created by lawmakers in 2020 should have oversight of much of Santee Cooper's actions.

The Senate version ends it as soon as the bill becomes law. The House version waits until Jan. 2, when a majority of the board should be new members and regulators with the Public Service Commission and public watchdog group the Office of Regulatory Staff should be ready for their additional control and oversight of Santee Cooper.

Smith called it “a fairly big sticking point.”

“There is a large concern on the House side that with the same board and the same leadership that thumbed their nose at the General Assembly for a year and a half is going to continue that soon as the reins are taken off them,” Smith said.

Rankin said waiting for the committee to meet keeps Santee Cooper from being nimble to take advantage of deals for fuel to generate power or other opportunities.

“We are leaving money on the table by holding on to this oversight," Rankin said.

Also Wednesday, a legislative panel that oversees utilities held a first confirmation hearing for former U.S. Attorney and ex-state Rep. Peter McCoy to be chairman of Santee Cooper's board.

McCoy said his chief goals are to keep electric rates low, get more solar and natural gas into the mix to generate power and regain trust lost when the nuclear projects failed.

He also promised the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee that he would be independent of Gov. Henry McMaster, who nominated him for the position, according to media reports.

Lawmakers raised no major issues with McCoy's nomination. He has a few more hearing before his nomination goes before the full Senate.


Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.