May 07--COLUMBIA, S.C. -- More than nine months after two S.C. utilities abandoned their $9 billion effort to build two nuclear reactors, state lawmakers have yet to pass any laws addressing one of the largest financial debacles in S.C. history.
With just one week left in the legislative session, the pressure is on for the General Assembly to fulfill months-old promises to protect S.C. power customers from paying higher power bills for the unfinished V.C. Summer Station reactors.
State lawmakers also have yet to pass proposed laws restructuring the regulatory system that allowed Cayce-based SCE&G and the state-owned Santee Cooper utility to embark on their project and keep pouring their customers' money into the failing venture.
"This would be a legislative debacle" if lawmakers fail to pass long-term solutions this year, said Frank Knapp, chief executive of the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce. "What an embarrassment it would be to the state of South Carolina ... for the only winners at the end of that process to be SCE&G, Dominion (the Virginia-based power company that wants to buy SCE&G's parent company, SCANA) and Santee Cooper."
The nuclear fiasco has cost S.C. power customers.
Over the past decade, SCE&G's customers have paid some $2 billion in the form of higher power bills for the project. SCE&G households continue to pay about $27 a month toward the useless reactors.
Customers of Santee Cooper, which owns a 45-percent share in the project, are paying about $5 a month more for power because of the project and can expect their bills to jump another 7 percent.
A handful of proposals aimed at protecting SCE&G customers and preventing a future debacle have passed the S.C. House. But with the exception of a proposal to slash SCE&G's rates, they all have stalled in the state Senate.
Who is to blame is a matter of perspective.
House members have slammed the Senate for failing to debate proposed reforms. But some senators contend the House -- with all its members up for election this year -- has passed politically expedient proposals without first thinking through them.
"It's incredibly frustrating that the Senate has continued to sit on meaningful reforms," said state Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington. "Ten or so months into this, they still are sitting on their haunches and not acting."
"The Senate is known for taking a reasonable and responsible and deliberative approach to legislation," responded Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, adding the Senate will try to pass at least some of the bills before it adjourns Thursday at 5 p.m.
Here is where each of the proposals stands:
SCE&G rate cut
S. 954, the Legislature's best chance to cut SCE&G's rates, is tied up in a conference committee, where Senate and House negotiators are working through their differences over how much to slice from the investor-owned utility's power bills.
On Feb. 20, the Senate passed a proposal delaying -- until December -- a state Public Service Commission decision on how much more SCE&G customers will have to pay for the nuclear project, and whether Dominion can finalize its buyout of SCANA, SCE&G's parent company.
On March 8, the House passed that proposal back to the Senate after tacking on language to cut SCE&G's rates by 18 percent -- the amount that the utility adds to its customers' monthly power bill for the project.
On April 18, the Senate agreed to slash SCE&G's power bills -- but by 13 percent. That is how much lawmakers could cut from the utility's rates without forcing it into bankruptcy, according to a Senate-commissioned study.
A week later, the House insisted on removing the entire 18-percent nuclear surcharge, saying SCE&G customers should not have to keep paying for reactors that won't be completed.
A six-man panel of Senate and House negotiators met last week but could not work out a compromise. They could meet again this week.
A rate-cut proposal also could be passed when lawmakers return to Columbia this summer to take up Gov. Henry McMaster's vetoes.
Repealing the Base Load Review Act
H. 4375 would repeal -- for all future projects -- the 2007 state law that allowed SCE&G to charge its customers for the V.C. Summer expansion, during construction and after its abandonment.
It also would define the words "prudent" and "imprudent" for the Public Service Commission. Lawmakers wanted those words defined before the PSC uses them to judge whether SCE&G's actions in managing the Summer project were reasonable and the utility's costs justified.
The House passed the repeal bill Jan. 31. The bill now is up for debate on the Senate floor.
The House added a version of the proposal in its proposed state budget. But the budget also has not yet passed.
Strengthening utility watchdogs
H. 4379 would create a "consumer advocate," an attorney to fight for consumers in utility rate-hike cases.
The bill, which the House passed on Jan. 24, also would give subpoena power to the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state agency that polices utilities, and remove a requirement that agency also look out for utilities' finances.
The proposal is up for debate on the Senate floor.
More oversight for Santee Cooper
The House passed H. 4376 -- sacking Santee Cooper's board and requiring the state-owned utility to seek the PSC's approval for any rate hikes -- on April 4. But the proposal has gone nowhere in the Senate.
It is unlikely to pass this year, unless lawmakers decide to finish action on the nuclear proposals when they return to Columbia this summer.
Firing the Public Service Commission
H. 4377 would sack members of the PSC -- the state board that approved nine rates hikes to help SCE&G finance the nuclear project -- over the next two years. It passed the House on Feb. 20 but since has languished in the Senate.
It also is unlikely to pass unless lawmakers debate it this summer.
Shaking up who oversees energy regulators
On Jan. 25, the House passed a proposal to get rid of the state board that screens PSC members and Santee Cooper board members, and start over with a new board.
H. 4378 would have replaced the Public Utilities Review Committee with the Utilities Review Committee, but it has not been debated in the Senate.
Separately, a number of other energy proposals already are dead for the year, including bills that would have blocked utilities from wining and dining Public Service Commission members, and prohibited power companies from donating to state lawmakers' campaigns.
Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
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