COLUMBIA - The South Carolina House is insisting the state continue to accept offers to sell 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.
The House refused to accept changes the Senate made last month to a bill the House passed back in January .
The House mostly agreed with the Senate, which gets rid of by 2023 the nine members of the current 10-person Santee Cooper board who were serving before 2017 when the utility was the minority partner in building two nuclear reactors which were abandoned before generating power, losing billions of dollars.
The proposals from both chambers 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.
A state committee would have approval power over any severance packages for utility executives and would have to approve any new bonds or debt Santee Cooper assumes.
"I'm optimistic now that we're going to bring such much-needed accountability and transparency and most importantly some oversight to Santee Cooper that all too long has not existed," said Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter.
But to finally pass the overhaul that supporters have been pushing for since the South Carolina Electric & Gas-led nuclear project failed four years ago, both chambers will have to reach an agreement on whether to keep accepting bids to sell Santee Cooper to a private firm.
The recent effort to sell the utility was a $15 million intricate bid process that ended in March 2020 with both the House and Senate rejecting an offer to buy from NextEra Energy of Florida.
NextEra offered to adjust its bid, but the utility said last month it was no longer interested in Santee Cooper.
"As you know, NextEra packed up, took their earnest money and is gone. There is not a buyer. But we short ourselves if we do not continue the process," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, a Republican from Rock Hill.
On an 83-54 vote, the House approved a proposal to create a committee of three senators and three House members that can seek and accept any bids to buy Santee Cooper over the next 10 years. Any bids would have to be approved by the entire General Assembly.
The Senate rejected a similar proposal to accept bids 36-8 during their debate last month.
"We've been here and done this," said Rep. Sylleste Davis, a Republican from Moncks Corner where Santee Cooper is headquartered. "I think it is time to move on with reform. We've spent over $15 million, and we are essentially right back where we started."
Santee Cooper provides power for about 2 million of South Carolina's 5 million people, either directly or through electricity sold to cooperatives.
The Senate is almost certain not to agree to the House changes to the bill. That will send the proposal to a conference committee of three senators and three House members to come up with a compromise. Any agreement would have to be approved by both chambers before it can be sent to the governor's desk. Gov. Henry McMaster strongly supports selling the utility.
Simrill urged House members to stick with their desire to keep a committee on standby to take bids for Santee Cooper.
"We stand up here and say the Senate won't do X or the Senate won't do Y. We need to pass legislation and work from our vantage point back to the taxpayers and the ratepayers in South Carolina," Simrill said.
But Rep. Russell Ott said continuing to try to sell the utility wastes money, threatens reforms and causes unnecessary worry for workers who fix power lines, as well as for office staff and other lower level Santee Cooper employees.
"We're not talking you upper, upper echelon folks. It is shameful to know the amount of money some of those top executives walked away with," said Ott, a Democrat from St. Matthews. "I'm talking about the people who get up every morning to make sure our lights come on when we flip that switch."
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