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Lawmakers face Santee Cooper decision during this session of General Assembly

Keeping or selling state-owned utility involves much consideration, many S.C. legislators say

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 1/11/20

Whether to sell or keep a state-owned utility that provides electricity to all 20 South Carolina cooperatives is likely the No. 2 issue facing the General Assembly this year.

Most legislators who spoke at a legislative workshop in Columbia for …

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Lawmakers face Santee Cooper decision during this session of General Assembly

Keeping or selling state-owned utility involves much consideration, many S.C. legislators say

Posted

Whether to sell or keep a state-owned utility that provides electricity to all 20 South Carolina cooperatives is likely the No. 2 issue facing the General Assembly this year.

Most legislators who spoke at a legislative workshop in Columbia for the media on Thursday said weighing a decision on what to do with Santee Cooper is the other "big-ticket item" in the 2020 session after education topics. State Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, spoke on Friday and agreed.

After the debacle associated with the now-abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion in Fairfield County, many lawmakers wanted to sell Santee Cooper to an out-of-state investor-owned utility in 2019. But the decision was made to slow down the process and consider all options in what many consider a complicated study with many facets.

The state-owned utility is considered South Carolina's largest asset, even above the Port of Charleston, lawmakers say.

The state Department of Administration is completing a report for consideration by the General Assembly on best-case scenarios for a sale involving bid packages or hybrid management proposals where the state would continue to own the utility, but another entity would manage it.

Also, Santee Cooper will provide a reform proposal to lawmakers on maintaining itself as a state-owned utility.

Some House and Senate members are already in camps to sell or to keep it, while others are waiting on the report.

State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, a caucus leader in the Senate, said he thinks the decision may come down to three to five votes in his chamber. Massey said he's in the camp to not rush to judgment and that the report should determine the ultimate decision.

The state co-ops will buy their electricity from whomever is in place as the utility owner.

"The co-ops of South Carolina play a huge role in this," said state Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun. "They hold a very large trump card ultimately in what we do."

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, is for a sale in the free market, he said, given Santee Cooper's performance in Fairfield.

What to do with the money in a one-time sale is another question for debate.

Given Santee Cooper's debt from V.C. Summer, state Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, told The Sumter Item on Friday he thinks if lawmakers decide to keep it, the utility's debt can likely be managed better in the form of lower rate increases on co-op customers.

McElveen said he doesn't see how his constituents will have lower power bills if an investor-owned utility buys Santee Cooper and the state loses its control of the utility.

"It may happen over a period of time," he said. "When they have investors and shareholders, the utility has to get their money back at some point, depending on what plan they have to manage the debt. But, the idea that this debt is just going to go away, I just don't buy it. Until someone proves or shows otherwise to me, I don't buy it."

Ultimately, McElveen said, he wants "a plan that is as painless as possible."

"I have been a proponent of saving Santee Cooper," he said, "if that is the best scenario long-term for rate payers and taxpayers in this state. If it just doesn't work, that's fine. But I feel we have to be a little bit fluid and dynamic to our approach to this. It will take time to make that decision."

An out-of-state investor-owned utility would have no interest in maintaining lakes in South Carolina, he said. The Santee Cooper Lakes - Marion and Moultrie - that feed the Santee River hold 160,000 acres and span 450 miles of shoreline in Sumter, Clarendon, Berkeley, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties.

"There's just a lot of moving parts," he said, "that we need to make sure we give careful attention to."