COLUMBIA — The political battle over SCANA's monthly charges for two useless nuclear reactors blew up Wednesday, as S.C. House lawmakers accused the Senate of allowing the utility company to cheat its customers.
The House altered a bill to force the state's senators to debate whether to eliminate the $37 million per month that SCANA collects for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
The House's vote of 107 to 1 marks the second time the state's representatives voted to cut off the money SCANA bills its more than 700,000 customers for the abandoned reactors. Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Townville, was the only opposing vote.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said the Senate's inaction has cost customers tens of millions of dollars since the House passed its first bill on Jan. 31. He also pointed out the Senate's reluctance could add $370 million more onto people's electric bills by the end of the year.
The legislative move is now likely to set up a tense standoff between the two legislative bodies, who continue to argue over how to respond to one of the biggest financial crises in South Carolina history.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said the House lawmakers wanted to remind the Senate who they serve.
"You work for the ratepayer and the taxpayer of South Carolina," Simrill said. "It is time for action. There is absolutely zero reason that the Senate should not act."
Many of the House members took issue with SCANA's recent decision to pay out $87.5 million in dividend payments to its shareholders at a time when the company has complained it is destined for bankruptcy. House lawmakers say that move showed SCANA is simply cycling the nuclear charges from its customers to the company's investors.
"They're not paying for reactors," said Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun. "They are paying for a company to continue to make profits and then send some of those profits back to their shareholders. That's simply not right, folks."
Some of the Senate's most powerful lawmakers remain skeptical about wiping out the $445 million that SCANA collects annually for the long-troubled project that was shut down last summer. Many are worried it could bankrupt SCANA and hurt the state's business climate.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, has held several hearings on the nuclear-related bills the House passed early in the legislative session. But his subcommittee has yet to discuss whether to cut off SCANA's nuclear charges.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler shot back at the House blaming them for playing election year politics. The Senate, they said, doesn't want to make another costly mistake.
“I frankly don’t care what they say," Massey said of the House. "I don’t care about the gamesmanship all that much. I’m really more interested in trying to solve the problem. If they want to go on a temper tantrum, they can do that. Just don't expect me to respond to all of them."
The Senate is also waiting on an audit to be conducted by an independent accounting firm so lawmakers get a better sense of whether SCANA's threats of bankruptcy are real. But that hasn't stopped the pressure from building in the House.
"People want to know what we are going to do about SCANA," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia. "Well, the House has acted. The House continues to do its business. We did it again today. What we want, what we demand, is that the Senate simply do something."
Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican who is running for re-election, also leaned on the Senate following the House's press conference.
"To continue to allow utilities to charge South Carolinians for the failed project at VC Summer when we have the ability to stop it would be a failure on the part of our state's government," McMaster said.
Some senators, like Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, have also said they're worried about losing a lawsuit against SCANA if they eliminate the charges and repeal the Base Load Review Act — the 2007 law that jump started the nuclear project.
The House is less concerned about that. After months of legislative hearings, they don't want to wait any longer.
"We have no other obligation to anyone other than our citizens and our ratepayers. We are protecting our ratepayers," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia. "An argument could be made that maybe we didn't do a good job of that in the past. Perhaps we didn't, but we should today."
Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this story.