Editor's note: This column originally ran in the Sunday edition of The State.
A majority of S.C. residents want Virginia-based Dominion Energy to buy troubled SCANA, according to the most recent Winthrop Poll.
That deal, Dominion promises, …
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That deal, Dominion promises, would lower the power bills of customers of SCANA's SCE&G subsidiary and give partial refunds to those customers for money they paid for an abandoned nuclear construction project.
But, according to that poll, nearly half of all S.C. residents also want state lawmakers to repeal the 2007 law, the Base Load Review Act, that encouraged the V.C. Summer expansion.
That could kill the deal with Dominion, which says it wants the 2007 law to remain in place so it can keep charging SCE&G's customers for the V.C. Summer project.
S.C. lawmakers blame the poll's conflicting findings - do the Dominion deal, but kill the law that Dominion says it must have to do the deal - on what they say has been a successful but "deceptive" statewide ad campaign, marketing the benefits of the proposed buyout.
Since announcing its offer to buy SCANA on Jan. 3, the Virginia-based utility has spent nearly $3.7 million producing and placing ads, according to documents obtained by The State newspaper.
"Deceptive advertising can be effective," said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. "The advertising campaign doesn't tell people all the details of it. If you told people that the Dominion-SCANA proposal means they've got to keep paying for V.C. Summer for the next 20 years, you're not going to have 57 percent support."
Dominion sees the support for its SCANA buyout differently.
"Our communications have been straightforward, and customers understand the proposal well," spokesman Chet Wade said in a statement. "What customers tell us is they are looking forward to both getting back a substantial portion of what they have paid for the new nuclear project thus far and having lower rates in the future."
A nuclear mess
The poll results - to questions asked by Winthrop University's polling unit for The State newspaper - come as the S.C. General Assembly grapples with how to settle a fiasco that erupted last July, when SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper abandoned a decadelong effort to build two new nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County. The utilities jointly spent $9 billion on the project, which was beset with construction delays and cost overruns. Now, with power customers facing higher power bills to pay off that debt in the coming decades, lawmakers are looking to step in.
The S.C. House last month passed a proposal to block SCE&G temporarily from continuing to charge its customers roughly $37 million a month - or $27 a month for the typical residential customer - for the useless reactors.
The state Senate now is considering that proposal, which would partially repeal the Base Load Review Act. But some senators worry repealing the 2007 law would be unconstitutional or could lead to higher power bills, anyway.
Further complicating the debate is Dominion's threat to walk away if lawmakers repeal the 2007 law, withdrawing its plan to lower SCE&G power bills and offer partial refunds.
Dominion wants important parts of that law to remain in place so it can charge SCE&G's customers - who already have paid nearly $2 billion - some $2.8 billion more for the failed nuclear project over the next 20 years.
"We have supported reversing the Base Load Review Act for future projects," Dominion spokesman Wade said. "(But) well-researched opinions have shown that reversing the BLRA, retroactively, would face serious constitutional challenges. Not only would it put in jeopardy the benefits of our proposal, but it also would open the state to a long and expensive legal battle and harm the state's ability to attract future business development."
'That is not the truth'
As lawmakers note, Dominion's plan to continue charging SCE&G customers for the failed nuclear project is left out of its TV commercials, full-page newspaper ads, radio spots, online ads and power bill inserts.
Dominion spent $276,000 to create those ads. Then, it spent $3.4 million buying air time and ad space before suspending its marketing efforts on Feb. 14, hours after lawmakers complained the ads were misleading and deceptive.
That spending is similar to what it might cost a presidential candidate to reach S.C. voters before the Palmetto State's first-in-the-South primary.
For example, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., spent about $3.5 million on air time in the months before the 2016 S.C. primary, according to longtime Republican strategist Warren Tompkins.
"Any of the candidates running for governor in the Republican primary would be jumping up and down with joy to have that much money to spend on advertising," Tompkins said, referring to this year's S.C. race.
Dominion's ads highlight the positives of its proposal to buy SCANA, including:
- Refunds worth about $1,000 for the average SCE&G household that has paid about $1,400 for the V.C. Summer project;
- An immediate rate cut of about $10 a month;
- $1 million in added contributions to charities in SCE&G's service area over the next five years; and
- An end to the uncertainty surrounding SCANA, once South Carolina's largest publicly traded company.
But the campaign has frustrated some lawmakers who have been bombarded by calls from constituents - some not SCE&G customers - asking when they will get a $1,000 check from Dominion.
"They think they're going to get $1,000, they think the V.C. Summer surcharge is going to go away, and everything is going to be better if Dominion buys it because these commercials have led them to believe that, and that is not the truth," said state Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington.
'They want their money back'
According to Winthrop Poll results, Dominion's marketing campaign - still suspended while the company assesses lawmakers' complaints - has paid off.
About 57 percent of the poll's 976 respondents said they support the Dominion deal. Just 23 percent of S.C. residents say they oppose the deal, while 14 percent aren't sure.
Still, nearly half - 48 percent - want the Base Load Review Act repealed. If it withstands a legal challenge, that could stop SCE&G from charging its customers any more for the Summer project. It also could kill the Dominion deal.
Another 30 percent said they do not want the law repealed, and 18 percent were not sure. About 4 percent refused to answer each question.
Winthrop Poll director Scott Huffmon said conflicting results are common in polling, where they are known as "unconstrained" responses that are not tied logically.
"People always want more government services and also lower taxes," Huffmon said, adding people also tend to want nice, orderly neighborhoods but despise homeowners' associations.
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, said the numbers show Dominion's ad campaign worked but South Carolinians still "are concerned about continuing to pay for something they won't get."
State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Richland, said the poll shows S.C. residents support the House's plan to repeal temporarily the Base Load Review Act - stopping SCE&G's ongoing nuclear charges - until state regulators and the courts decide who should pay for the unfinished reactors. House members say that bill was crafted to keep Dominion's offer on the table.
"When people say they want it repealed, what they mean is they want their money back, and that's what we're trying to do in the House," Ballentine said. "We also have constitutional issues we have to work through, and that's why we didn't blanket repeal the whole thing.
"If people knew the details of that long bill and what the House had done, I think they would be pleased to know that their repeal is, in essence, what we've done in the House, to keep their money in their hands and not SCANA's."
The poll found about three-quarters of S.C. residents had at least heard of the nuclear fiasco. About half said they were somewhat or very familiar with the issue.
A higher percentage of residents in counties served by SCE&G - 60 percent - said they support the deal and were familiar with the nuclear fiasco.
Reach Avery G. Wilks at (803) 771-8362 or @averygwilks.
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