After hearing lots of stern reprimands and impassioned pleas from around the state and after wrangling with the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff, Wal-Mart, the Navy, AARP and the S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce, SCE&G has decreased the amount it wants to raise rates for customers.

That is a step in the right direction. A step. There is still time for SCE&G customers to speak up about whether the hike, while smaller, is too large.

It isnít a new routine. SCE&G has been paying regular visits to the Public Service Commission to request more from ratepayers. This time, itís $97 million (down from $152 million) ó an increase of 4.23 percent. In January 2010, SCE&G was allowed a 4.88 percent increase that was phased in over three steps. The last portion went into effect this summer.

Since 2009, it has raised rates five more times specifically toward the cost of two new $10 billion nuclear reactors being built.

Consumers get another chance today to speak on the rate hike proposal at a 6 p.m. hearing at the PSC office in Columbia off Broad River Road at I-20. A few questions the PSC might hear:

Ľ Why are SCE&Gís rates higher than every other utility in the state?

Ľ Why should SCE&G be allowed to raise rates in an economy where many people and businesses are having a hard time making ends meet? The hike would cost the average customer an additional $80 a year.

Ľ How does SCE&G justify asking customers to pay more, while executives for its parent company SCANA buy expensive food and alcoholic beverages on the company dime?

PSC members are given information about how many people have written letters to protest rate hikes, but they do not see them, so they rely on testimony at public hearings to gauge consumer concerns.

SCE&G says the rates need to increase because of costs to install equipment to clean emissions, costs to trim trees and costs to meet other government standards.

On the bright side, the cost of natural gas dropped, so SCE&G customers will get a break, offsetting a portion of any rate increase that the PSC approves.

No one would suggest that SCE&Gís role in South Carolina is not vital to the health and well-being of citizens and businesses. Its capacity to deliver reliable power is a must if the state is to attract new business and see existing businesses expand.

But SCE&G should hear customersí concerns and show them why their rate hikes are absolutely necessary. Average citizens are scrimping in this stagnant economy. They should be convinced that SCE&G has cut every cost possible in order to avoid raising rates while still doing its job dependably.