No Sale: Santee Cooper's Future Is Reform, Not Private Owner

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, left, talks to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, right, before a meeting over a Santee Cooper overhaul bill on Tuesday, June, 1, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Powerful legislative leaders reached a compromise on the bill that will be considered at a special session. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, left, talks to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, right, before a meeting over a Santee Cooper overhaul bill on Tuesday, June, 1, 2021, in Columbia, S.C. Powerful legislative leaders reached a compromise on the bill that will be considered at a special session. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina legislative leaders most ardent about selling state-owned utility Santee Cooper said Tuesday it's obvious there are no interested buyers and signed off on an overhaul proposal that leaves the utility publicly owned.

Both the House and Senate will need to approve the compromise reached by some of the state's most powerful lawmakers during a special session later this month.

But with House leaders abandoning their push to sale, the bill should easily get General Assembly approval and apparently end a reform-or-sell saga that started in 2017 when Santee Cooper found itself billions of dollars in debt after its minority partnership in a pair of nuclear reactors that South Carolina Electric & Gas never finished building.

House Speaker Jay Lucas said the changes in how Santee Cooper operates were too critical for his chamber to dig in its heels on the sale issue. The Senate voted 36-8 in April to reject a version of the committee the House wanted.

“I want these reforms to work. This is a really good bill," Lucas said.

But Lucas said he wishes senators would have at least kept in place a committee the House wanted to hear any potential offers down the road. Otherwise, prospective buyers can approach any lawmaker or the governor with either an honest offer or something more nefarious and below board.

“These issues are going to come up again and what I worry is we will be right back in the same chaos," said Lucas, a Republican from Hartsville, who said last year he would applaud the removal of every Santee Cooper board member.

The compromise bill nearly gives Lucas his wish. Over the next four years, it kicks off nine people on the 10-member Santee Cooper board, all of whom were serving before the nuclear reactors were abandoned in 2017.

The proposal gives state regulators more power over the utility, 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.

The Senate also agreed with almost all the House's wishes to keep special oversight of Santee Cooper through the end of this year when regulators with the Public Service Commission and public watchdog group the Office of Regulatory Staff should be ready for their additional control and oversight of Santee Cooper.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin called the years of back and forth on Santee Cooper a “slog,” but said it was needed because the issue was so important.

“I hope and pray again we don’t revisit the chaos that we had in the past. And this strategy is one that if we decide in future legislatures to sell it, it will be a hell of a lot more valuable to the people of South Carolina," said Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach.

South Carolina spent $15 million trying to sell Santee Cooper with a intricate bid process that attracted 10 companies. NextEra Energy of Florida was picked as the best bid, but lawmakers rejected it, calling the offer underwhelming. Lucas and others said Santee Cooper was in such bad shape they couldn't get better offers.

Tuesday's compromise makes it likely Santee Cooper will survive as a public utility. It was founded during the Great Depression to bring power to rural sections of South Carolina — Rankin told Lucas that “your area and mine would not have power but for Santee Cooper’s creation."

Gov. Henry McMaster has pushed for the sale since the nuclear project collapsed. Fifteen years ago, Santee Cooper survived another push to sell it to a private company by then-Gov. Mark Sanford.

Santee Cooper provides power to about 2 million of the state's 5 million people either directly or through selling power it generates to about two dozen electric cooperatives and local governments.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.