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McMaster Signs Santee Cooper Bill, Pushes for Utility Sale

FILE - Construction is well underway for two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. on Monday, April 9, 2012. The South Carolina House is insisting the state continue to accept offers to sale Santee Cooper, meaning the fate of a bill to overhaul the state-owned utility will go down to the wire at this year's session. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Jeffrey Collins/AP
FILE - Construction was well underway for two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, S.C. on Monday, April 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday signed into law a long-awaited bill to overhaul state-owned utility Santee Cooper, but said he would rather sell off the debt-burdened company.

The utility's future had been uncertain since July 2017, when construction of a pair of nuclear reactors in which the utility was a minority partner stopped before completion, leaving the company billions of dollars in debt. Though lawmakers debated for years about whether to sell or reform the company, Santee Cooper's supporters ultimately won out in the effort to keep the company public.

McMaster said in a Tuesday signing statement that although the new reforms would help rehabilitate Santee Cooper, the "seemingly endless" debates on how to best reform the utility shows politicians shouldn't own or run the company.

"South Carolina no longer has a need to provide, and never had the legal obligation to own, a state-owned utility, and the political process does not include the private-sector expertise nor the means necessary to effectively oversee Santee Cooper's operations," McMaster wrote to House Speaker Jay Lucas.
The bill would have become law regardless of McMaster's signature. Lawmakers approved the legislation unanimously in both chambers, making it veto-proof.

"Santee Cooper embraces reform as provided in this legislation," utility spokeswoman Mollie Gore said in a statement. "Throughout this process, we have listened to the concerns of legislators and others, and we have already begun preparing to meet these new requirements that will increase our transparency and accountability."

The new law ousts nine of the 10 members on the utility's board, all of whom were serving before the nuclear reactors were abandoned by majority partner South Carolina Electric & Gas in 2017. It also restricts severance packages for any executives who lose their jobs.

The proposal gives state regulators more power over the utility. It allows them to review the utility's future plans to generate power and their forecasts for power, and to require public hearings and a watchdog to question utility executives about rate increases.

Lawmakers decided this year that selling the company was off the table because there were no interested buyers left. The legislators had rejected an offer from NextEra Energy of Florida that they deemed underwhelming.