Small Business Bulletin 1/18/05

The following issues are covered in this first newsletter of 2005:

SCE&G Rate Hike Request Cut By About 50%
Supreme Court Ruling On Small Business Employment Discrimination Revisited
Pilot Project On Affordable Health Care Moving Forward
Columbia Establishes A Small Business Regulatory Review Committee
2005 Legislative Agenda

SCE&G Rate Hike Request Cut By About 50%

On January 6, the S.C. Public Service Commission issued an order approving a 2.89%, increase, approximately $41 million, in revenue for South Carolina Electric & Gas Company through its electricity rates. That is about 50% less than the original 5.66% increase, approximately $81 million, the company had originally requested in July of 2004. The increases for each type of electricity user will be as follows: residential 4.44%, small business 1.67%, medium commercial 2.53% and large commercial 1.01%.

“This is a tremendous victory for the consumer and a validation of the importance of public rate hearings,” said Frank Knapp, Jr., president of The SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Knapp personally intervened in the PSC hearing to oppose the utility’s rate hike request. The SC Consumer Advocate, Columbia Energy and the Department of the Navy also intervened to oppose the rate increase.

“This ruling makes it very clear that utilities typically ask for a much higher rate increase than they actually deserve and need,” said Knapp.

Prior to the public hearing, the PSC staff entered into an agreement with SCE&G saying that the company should receive $51 in increased revenue. Mr. Knapp charged that the PSC staff rushed to judgment because they did not have all the information from those opposed to the rate increase. “It is clear that the PSC Commissioners, who heard all the testimony, agreed with my assessment since they lowered the staff’s recommendation by almost 20%, “said Knapp. “Hopefully, future rate increase hearings will not have this problem with the January 1st beginning of the new Office of Regulatory Staff, which will assume the duties of intervening in PSC hearings on behalf of consumers.”

Supreme Court Ruling On Small Business Employment Discrimination Revisited

In an October of 2004 ruling, the SC Supreme Court created a new cause of action against small businesses with 14 or fewer employees. Prior to this time, these businesses were protected from employment discrimination lawsuits regarding the “protected status” of religion, gender, age or national origin because state and most federal laws dealing with such activity only applied to businesses with 15 or more employees. Federal law addresses racial discrimination in employment decisions regardless of number of employees.

As a result of the October ruling, South Carolina businesses with 14 or fewer employees are now subject to discrimination lawsuits in all employment events such as interviews, hiring, terminations, promotions, training, demotions and layoffs without the legal protection of mandatory administrative procedures and caps on damages provided to businesses with 15 or more employees.

Upon learning of this ruling, The SC Small Business Chamber of Commerce publicly warned small businesses of their new liability and promised to seek legislative relief. The State covered this announcement with a business section front-page story on December 10th. Three days later, the Supreme Court voted to rehear the case in which the new cause of action was created.

Legislative action is now on hold until the Supreme Court addresses this issue sometime this spring. If the Court removes the new cause of action from its next ruling in this case, no legislative action will be needed.

Pilot Project On Affordable Health Care
Moving Forward

Following several years of frustration over how to make small group health insurance more affordable, the Small Business Chamber has initiated a pilot project to make health care more affordable for small businesses without health insurance. The Chamber has teamed up with the SC Primary Health Care Association to encourage small businesses in Beaufort, Darlington, Greenville, Horry and Sumter counties to forge private arrangements with local health care providers to deliver health care to employees at lower costs.

Up to 73% of South Carolina businesses with 50 or fewer employees do not offer health insurance. The Small Business Chamber has worked closely with the SC Department of Insurance to make recommendations for helping the uninsured working poor and has offered legislation to assist small businesses with the ability to aggregate together for insurance purposes. To date, none of these recommendations have been enacted.
For more information about this pilot project, call (803) 252-5733.

Columbia Establishes A Small Business Regulatory
Review Committee

Last week, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and City Council announced the formation of a Small Business Regulatory Review Committee and named Frank Knapp, president of the Small Business Chamber, as chairman. Modeled after successful legislation passed last session in the General Assembly, this committee of small business owners will be responsible for reviewing all proposed and existing city regulations and ordinances. The Committee will make recommendations to Council and staff as to how these regulations and ordinances might be changed to lessen any negative impact on small businesses. Columbia is the first South Carolina local government to formally establish such a permanent committee to help small businesses.

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