By JEFFREY COLLINS Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate approved a bill Thursday that would turn over almost the entire board of power company Santee Cooper, but it doesn’t seek new bids to sell the state-owned utility.
After three days of debate, senators agreed to a series of changes, including allowing a state committee to review any new debt or bonds Santee Cooper incurs. They also agreed to cut the terms of board members who oversee the utility from seven to four years with a limit of three terms.
The bill would allow regulators to review Santee Cooper’s future plans to generate power and their forecasts for power use. Santee Cooper, along with public utility SCANA, overestimated the state’s power needs about 15 years ago and created a partnership to build two nuclear reactors that were never finished despite spending billions of dollars.
It would require for the first time public hearings on rate increases and allow a state watchdog group to examine the request and question utility executives.
The bill would eventually get rid of every Santee Cooper board member who was serving when the nuclear project failed, staggering out the departures through 2025. It also requires any severance package given to executives to be approved by a legislative committee that reviews salaries for state agency leaders.
The Senate’s plan “brings confidence back to Santee Cooper both of it and in it,” said state Sen. Luke Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach who is one of Santee Cooper’s biggest defenders.
Santee Cooper provides power for about 2 million of South Carolina’s 5 million people, either directly or through electricity sold to cooperatives. The state-run utility was created during the Great Depression to bring power to vast rural areas of South Carolina and its supporters note that critical role in the state’s fabric.
One thing the bill doesn’t do is set up any rules to sell the agency to a private company. The Senate tossed out a proposal on a 36-8 vote Wednesday that would have created a committee of lawmakers that could accept and review bids to buy Santee Cooper for 10 years and send them along to the General Assembly.
The House passed a bill earlier this year to consider a sale and will now have to consider the Senate proposal. Gov. Henry McMaster also said the state needs to get out of the power business. Both chambers rejected a bid in 2020 to sell to Florida-based NextEra Energy after a $15 million bidding process.
While there were enough supporters to stop a possible sale of Santee Cooper, plenty of senators still think the utility hasn’t fully atoned from its sins of secrecy and hubris that led to the billions of dollars of debt from the failed nuclear plans and strained relationships with the co-ops to the point many wish they didn’t have long term contracts to buy power.
“I still think Santee Cooper is a Dumpster fire. I’m still concerned about the culture at Santee Cooper and I think it could fall apart at any time,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “However, we have provided sufficient accountably and oversight to prevent that as best we can.”
Massey said he thinks the Senate should consider the governor’s nomination of former state Rep. Peter McCoy to be chairman of the Santee Cooper’s board before the 2021 session ends May 13.
An even more dire warning about Santee Cooper’s future came from Sen. Marlon Kimpson. He said it’s hard enough for private utilities to stay up with the push for cleaner energy, much less for a state-owned utility who by its nature is less nimble.
Kimpson supported the reform bill, saying some reform was better than none. But the Charleston Democrat predicted the Senate would be dealing with Santee Cooper problems again within three years.
“This general assembly missed an opportunity to offload this albatross,” Kimpson said.
After two days of tense debate, Sen. Stephen Goldfinch opened Thursday with a little levity. He said while in a room negotiating with several other senators Wednesday night, Massey told him “Goldfinch, I think we can get this done if you shave your beard.”
The Murrells Inlet Republican said he resisted the offer for several hours, but then “I took to a razor with reckless abandon.” He pulled off his mask as the other senators cheered only a mustache on his clean shaven face.