COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — With the South Carolina Legislature's session more than halfway finished, lawmakers are suddenly trying to move fast on deciding the future of state-owned utility Santee Cooper and its $8 billion of debt hanging over customers and maybe even taxpayers.
The House and Senate had five meetings scheduled on the utility Tuesday, from a bill forcing them to get approval before building any more power plants to proposals urging offers to be gathered quickly to buy or manage the utility and dictate who will consider those bids.
"All of those need to move now," said Rep. Murrell Smith, a Republican from Sumter who is on a joint Senate-House committee deciding what to do with Santee Cooper and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
About half of Santee Cooper's debt came from money paid for construction and design of two now abandoned nuclear plants at the V.C. Summer plant. Santee Cooper was a minority partner. Majority partner and privately owned South Carolina Electric & Gas has already been sold.
For more than two months, lawmakers, especially in the Senate, have urged careful consideration and deliberate action. But last week, powerful senators said they were worried after back-to-back meetings with Santee Cooper executives where they could not answer what seemed like basic questions about their utility like their plans on raising rates or the latest on the utility's debt.
That, combined with the approaching May 9 date for adjournment for the 2019 session and the Senate needing to take up both the state budget and probably wanting to take up an education overhaul bill in the next seven weeks spurred the sudden flurry of action.
The House appears closer to selling Santee Cooper. A House committee passed a bill Tuesday that would prevent Santee Cooper from building new power plants without the approval of regulators.
A different House subcommittee passed a resolution Tuesday urging a joint House-Senate committee studying what to do about Santee Cooper to get bids as soon as possible from potential buyers or managers of the utility. The full House Ways and Means Committee then passed it five hours later.
"We still have a long way to go before final offers are in front of us," Smith said.
Exactly what might happen to the utility is still up in the air. Gov. Henry McMaster and others who want it sold said the $8 billion in debt cannot be passed on to ratepayers or taxpayers and Santee Cooper's mismanagement shows its executives can no longer be trusted.
But there are other senators who said Santee Cooper is cleaning up its problems. The utility has a nostalgic pull to some in South Carolina, having been created during the Great Depression to bring power to rural, poor areas between Columbia and Charleston. Since it is state-owned, lawmakers and others can nimbly use Santee Cooper to attract large industries with promises of power or water projects. That advantage disappears with private ownership.
"We need to move. Not to hurry and get this over with this year, which we're all tired of. It's been a slog since V.C. Summer went south. But folks, let's not undo in a year or two what this state has enjoyed for 84 years," said Sen. Luke Rankin, the Republican from Myrtle Beach who introduced his own legislation in the Senate Judiciary Committee he leads to back state law that the General Assembly, and not the governor, decides whether to accept a deal to buy the utility.
A different proposal introduced last week by Senate President Harvey Peeler appeared to give McMaster the sole authority to accept a deal, but leaders insist that was not their intention.
No matter what, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, a Republican from Florence first elected in 1981, said something is going to get through his Senate Finance Committee soon.
"I'm not going to let it languish in the committee and no attention paid to it, no action taken on it. I just want to put you on notice," Leatherman said. "The days may get long. The nights may get long. I've had both. It don't bother me one way or the other."