South Carolina

Momentum building toward Santee Cooper sale as SC House leaders file new proposal

S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, shakes hands with state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, after being elected speaker during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, S.C.
S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, shakes hands with state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, after being elected speaker during a session at the South Carolina State House Tuesday Dec. 4, 2018, in Columbia, S.C.

A day after an influential leader in the S.C. Senate called for the sale of Santee Cooper, House leaders filed their own proposal to work toward offloading the state-owned utility.

A resolution filed Thursday by six top House members — including S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington — would empower a committee of lawmakers to investigate four offers to purchase Santee Cooper the state has received and bring the best one back to the General Assembly for a vote.

The proposal — along with S.C. Senate President Harvey Peeler’s on Wednesday — helps generate momentum toward deciding the fate of the multi-billion-dollar power company, even if neither resolution passes. It also puts wind in the sails of S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who has pushed lawmakers to sell the utility since August 2017 and who celebrated the chambers’ support Thursday.

What becomes of Santee Cooper is important to the two million South Carolinians who rely on the Moncks Corner-based utility’s power. Santee Cooper is on the chopping block after it racked up $4 billion in debt before pulling out of the V.C. Summer nuclear plant construction project in Fairfield County.

Without a sale or another major change, Santee Cooper’s direct-serve customers in Horry, Georgetown and Berkeley counties will have to pay off that debt: about $6,200 per household in the form of higher power bills over the next four decades. Customers of the 20 S.C. electric cooperatives that buy and distribute Santee Cooper’s power will have to pay about $4,200 per household.

At an impasse

The joint House-Senate committee studying Santee Cooper’s sale has received four preliminary offers to purchase Santee Cooper, three of which would ensure that debt isn’t passed along to customers.

But S.C. lawmakers have been at an impasse over how — or whether — to pursue those anonymous, non-binding bids from major utilities and other firms.

Wednesday afternoon, senators debating whether to let Gov. Henry McMaster sell Santee Cooper indicated they first wanted to learn more about the bids the state has already received before deciding whether to sell.

But senators also aren’t thrilled about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars more to pay a consultant to furnish that information. And some wondered Wednesday whether it would be more productive to let someone — like the governor — negotiate with bidders and bring back the best offer to the General Assembly for a vote.

On the Senate floor Thursday, a handful of senators — including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin — cautioned their colleagues against rushing to sell Santee Cooper. The Horry Republican also expressed skepticism about the legitimacy of the four bids South Carolina has received for Santee Cooper. He said he expects any buyer to raise electric rates on customers, not lower them.

‘Workable road map’

The House proposal Thursday seeks to break that deadlock by letting the joint House-Senate committee explore the offers.

The committee would have to hire an expert — such as an investment bank — to negotiate with bidders and vet their offers. It then would present the best bid to the entire General Assembly for a yes-or-no vote to sell the utility.

“The House and governor spearheaded the effort to have real, attainable protection of ratepayers through the sale of Santee Cooper,” Lucas wrote in a statement after the proposal was introduced. “Today, we have introduced a thoughtful, workable road map to pursue possible sale or other methods to protect ratepayers. I am pleased that President Peeler has recognized that the time has come to sell Santee Cooper — now we also have the way.”

McMaster praised the House proposal.

“In the last twenty-four hours, the General Assembly has made historic progress toward protecting South Carolina ratepayers and taxpayers,” McMaster said. “Speaker Lucas has shown tremendous leadership and his action today demonstrates that a growing consensus is building in both chambers towards the sale of Santee Cooper. While we must continue the thoughtful and deliberate process of evaluating a sale, we cannot afford inaction or delay.”

Peeler’s Wednesday proposal, meanwhile, would effectively decide that Santee Cooper should be sold and authorizes McMaster to negotiate and execute the deal. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said Thursday Peeler’s proposal would get an up-or-down vote in his committee next week, signaling he thinks deliberations over whether to sell have lasted long enough.

“I’m not going to let it languish in the committee,” the Florence Republican said.

The House proposal was filed Thursday by Lucas, House budget committee chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York; House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland; House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston; and state Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun Democrat who has sat on House committees that studied the V.C. Summer project’s failure and Santee Cooper’s possible sale.

Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.