December 29, 2017
By Lindsay Street, Statehouse correspondent
A multi-billion canceled project, a corruption probe, big health care changes and a worsening teacher shortage top the honey-do lists for lawmakers when they reconvene Jan. 9 in Columbia.
The torrent of big issues comes during an election year for all 124 House seats and as lawmakers grapple with a budget expected to be tighter in a poor state full of budgetary needs.
According to College of Charleston political observer Gibbs Knotts, 2018 is poised to lean populist in decision-making by lawmakers. One of the biggest issues that lawmakers will have to deal with to remain popular with constituents will be the fallout from the canceled V.C. Summer project which saddled South Carolina ratepayers with $9 billion in debt for two nuclear reactors that remain unfinished.
‘All nuclear all the time’ these days
Dealing with the two utilities and utility reform in the wake of that project “will basically suck all the air out of the Statehouse,” according to another observer.
“Everybody’s number one legislative issue in 2018 is getting the customers off the hook for the billions SCE&G and Santee Cooper have spent on the abandoned nuclear plants,” utility watchdog coalition member Frank Knapp of Columbia said.
Knapp is one of the members of the Stop the Blank Check Coalition, which has nine members including the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and the League of Women Voters of South Carolina.
Knapp predicted the threat of a “legal quagmire” of SCE&G fighting the state to refund customers will keep customers footing the bill for now.
“Legislation alone will never get back all the additional money SCE&G ratepayers have paid since 2009 and continue to pay for the nuclear plants,” he said, adding that the only way for ratepayers to get their money back is for the state Supreme Court to rule the Base Load Review Act unconstitutional.
Prior to the project’s cancellation, there was already talk about repealing the contentious Base Load Review Act. S.C. Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, last week said the act needs to be repealed in the coming session.
This month, the Senate and House prefiled multiple bills to deal with the nuclear mess. Bills in the Senate include:
- Authorizing state’s utility watchdog to subpoena documents from utilities;
- Reducingthe size of the S.C. Public Service Commission (PSC) from seven to five members;
- Creating of a new consumer advocacy agency to represent utility customers in front of PSC;
- Increasing legislative oversight over bonds for state-owned utilities;
- Ending Santee Cooper retirement package offers; and,
- Valuing Santee Cooper for possible reform or sale.
Bills in the House include:
- Requiring utilities to pay for debt and costs associated with V.C. Summer;
- Reforming the Public Service Commission and require more vetting before decision making;
- Creating of a utility oversight committee;
- Requiring SCE&G’s parent company SCANA to issue refunds to customers for the project’s costs;
- Granting the state’s utility watchdog with the ability to subpoena; and,
- Reforming Santee Cooper by ending current board members’ terms and more.
S.C. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, served on the House committee studying the nuclear debacle that cost 6,000 people their jobs in Fairfield County.
“This is one of the most vexing issues I’ve faced in the 20 years I’ve been in the General Assembly,” he said.
There are more jobs on the line if the state punishes SCANA to the point of bankruptcy, he said. “I’m not exactly sure what the pathway looks like going forward but I want to exercise caution and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
That’s a tall order in an election year in the wake of the deeply unpopular project. He said the House must proceed “very delicately.”
Prior to the nuclear fallout, the General Assembly already faced a busy 2018 with ethics reform, teacher pay and the annual budget.