Editorial Roundup: South Carolina

(Charleston) Post and Courier. June 7, 2021.

Editorial: Santee Cooper compromise is a big step forward, but there’s more to do

People who were determined to sell Santee Cooper no matter what will complain that the plan up for final approval in the S.C. Legislature is an unworkable reform. Reformers will complain that the plan doesn’t go far enough — particularly by not putting the state-owned utility on a path to eventual PSC regulation of its electricity rates.

We certainly won’t argue that the compromise approved last week by a House-Senate conference committee is perfect. It still doesn’t let the governor remove board members for more than a handful of reasons, most of which can lead to criminal indictment.

But make no mistake: This is still real reform that will provide transparency and oversight that will move the utility toward being an accountable state agency — which it never really has been.

Santee Cooper was a secretive, out-of-control entity that refused to act like a state agency long before it blew $4 billion on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion that lawmakers pushedd it into undertaking along with the now-defunct SCE&G.

Final legislative approval of H.3194 — along with Senate confirmation of former Rep. Peter McCoy as chairman of the Santee Cooper board — should finally allow our state to move beyond the V.C. Summer debacle.

While there’s something in the compromise plan (or not in the plan) for everybody to object to, there’s also something for everybody to love — and for all but my-way-or-the-highway sorts to support despite their objections. That’s the very definition of a good compromise, which is what all good laws are built around.

This one is supported by conservationists who have been fighting for years to drag the utility into the clean-energy era. It’s supported by Santee Cooper’s biggest customers, the electric cooperatives, which are locked in a long-term contract to purchase power from the utility that could only be broken by a sale. The leading legislative advocates of selling Santee Cooper signed off on the plan even absent any mechanism for a sale, because they believe the reform components are muscular enough to make a difference. Santee Cooper’s biggest legislative advocates signed off as well.

House and Senate negotiators still have to review details that they left to staff to work out, but the plan they agreed to last week requires approval from the Public Service Commission or the Office of Regulatory Staff for most of the Santee Cooper board’s major decisions; requires that board to provide more information to ratepayers; and gives ratepayers a chance to complain about proposed rate hikes — although the final decision on monthly power bills will still be up to the board.

Legislators, conservationists and the co-ops say one of the most important reforms requires PSC approval of the utility’s long-term energy plans, which determine how it can spend money and should be the main driver of power bills.

The legislation removes all of the current board members over the next four years — which should help eliminate the culture of arrogance that has permeated management for years — and shortens the terms for new board members. It still doesn’t let the governor remove board members just because he doesn’t think they’re doing a good job, but it does remove a chilling anti-accountability provision that made it illegal for a governor to even ask board members to consider voluntarily resigning.

House Ways and Means Chairman Murrell Smith told his fellow negotiators he hoped they wouldn’t have to address Santee Cooper again. It’s an understandable desire — and it’s even reasonable to hope that lawmakers won’t again have to be consumed for nearly four years by questions about the agency’s future. But H.3194 includes a complex set of regulatory changes that are almost certain to need tweaking as unintended consequences pop up. Lawmakers need to be willing to make those changes.

And it’s neither reasonable nor wise to close the door on reforms that the compromise leaves on the table.

It makes sense, as House Speaker Jay Lucas argued, to have a process in place for vetting bids the next time the question of selling the utility comes up — as it surely will. Unlike public education, electricity isn’t a service that government itself has a moral or constitutional duty to provide, so our state should be prepared to consider any reasonable offers. There never was one this time, and we would be surprised if an investor-owned utility could pay the taxes and dividends that Santee Cooper doesn’t have to pay and also provide lower rates. But it’s not impossible, so lawmakers should work next year to spell out that process through separate legislation.

Likewise, lawmakers should get Santee Cooper on a path toward full PSC regulation by prohibiting the utility from issuing new debt with covenants that make that financially prohibitive.

And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, they still need to return to the pre-Mark Sanford law that allowed governors to fire board members for any reason. That law worked for decades without hurting Santee Cooper’s bond ratings, or its ability to provide reliable power at a good rate to 2 million South Carolinians. It would work again.

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(Orangeburg) Times and Democrat. June 8, 2021.

Editorial: Prison opinion: Sunlight is not optional

The S.C. legislature officially requires maximum sunlight in government, as stated in the Freedom of Information Act, but officials often act as though it requires minimal disclosure.

An attorney general’s opinion released has ended a bizarre episode in which the S.C. Department of Corrections refused to release the names of inmates who died in custody.

The 11-page opinion by S.C. Solicitor General Robert Cook concluded that the Corrections Department probably would be considered a “covered entity” under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — as medical officials at the agency had warned, prompting Director Bryan Stirling to stop releasing the names pending an opinion from Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office.

But the opinion also noted that the federal privacy law specifically allows medical information to be released if another law requires it. And although the S.C. Supreme Court has bizarrely held that autopsies are exempt from disclosure, the May 14 opinion concluded that the names of dead inmates (along with their death certificates — and in fact everybody’s death certificates) are public records under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.

The opinion confirms our dismay at a county coroner’s refusal to release the name of a notorious inmate who died in prison this month. And it should serve as a reminder to McCormick County Coroner Faye Puckett and any other coroners who are confused about the requirements of their job, which include obeying state law.

Not to take anything away from Cook, whose opinions are consistently thorough and evenhanded, but this one was bolstered by such an overwhelming collection of statutory, regulatory and judicial citations that it left us baffled at how anyone who holds himself out to be an expert on HIPAA could have failed to reach the same conclusion.

As such, it underscores our belief that state agencies should take this sort of question first to the attorney general, whose job is to provide the answers that a court likely would reach, rather than outside “experts,” who might provide the opinion that either the agency or that “expert” wants.

But the importance of the opinion extends beyond this one situation where a state agency fearful that it was violating federal law instituted a policy that violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act. It also provides a much-needed reminder to public officials who routinely violate our open records and open meetings law by pretending that it allows much more secrecy than it does. As the opinion makes clear, the requirements of the whole law are actually much greater than the sum of its discrete parts.

That concept is baked into the law, which begins with an unequivocal declaration that “it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”

That’s followed immediately by a mandate that the law’s provisions “must be construed so as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities of their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings.”

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(Greenwood) The Index-Journal. June 5, 2021.

Editorial: How’d that turtle get there?

It was only fitting that two events merged as one Friday on the campus of Piedmont Technical College.

First, as people gathered beneath and around a tent, former PTC President Ray Brooks was lauded for his 13 years of service to the school in particular and to the state’s technical college system in general. Brooks retired — for the second time — as the college’s second president at the end of last year.

Second, it was the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the William H. “Billy” O’Dell Upstate Center for Manufacturing Excellence, a facility that was Brooks’ longtime dream fulfilled. In fact, it was the realization that all the pieces were going to fall into place after all to provide the high-tech training facility that led Brooks to rescind his initial retirement announcement. He had to see his baby through to its birth.

PTC has a storied and successful history in the Lakelands. Under the leadership of its first and thus far longest-serving president, Lex Walters, Piedmont Tech became a beacon, an example for other tech facilities across the state. The system continued its growth and impact on the Lakelands under Brooks. And while Brooks is rightfully proud to see what was once farmland behind PTC give way to an ultra-modern high-tech training facility meeting the needs of the manufacturing sector, he is probably most proud of what that means.

For one, it means the Japanese carbon fiber company, Teijin, chose Greenwood for its newest worldwide facility, knowing future employees would get the training they needed just down the road from their plant. It means training will be available for future industries and manufacturers. Making it a win-win is the fact that it means people in Greenwood County and nearby residents will have received the education and training they need in order to better their lives and provide for their families.

Ray Brooks, thank you for your service to PTC, your sense of teamwork and for putting that turtle on the fence post.

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