pc-062917-bz-santeecooper (copy) (copy)

Santee Cooper is headquartered in Moncks Corner. A new legislative committee will study the idea of selling the state-owned utility, which sells power to the state's 20 electric cooperatives. File/Staff

Gov. Henry McMaster — an outspoken advocate for the sale of Santee Cooper — is making sure he has a seat at the table when the Legislature debates the idea.

McMaster appointed himself Wednesday to a special legislative committee set up to explore the idea of unloading Santee Cooper, a state-owned utility that traces its history to the New Deal. McMaster has pushed for nearly a year to send the power producer to the private sector.

It's not the first time the idea of selling Santee Cooper has come up in Columbia, but this is an extraordinary moment for South Carolina's utility sector. The failure of the V.C. Summer nuclear project has upended the industry, and it has saddled utilities and their customers with billions of dollars in debt.

Santee Cooper owned just under half of the plan to build a pair of nuclear reactors north of Columbia, and it piled up $4 billion in debt for the project. The utility has more debt overall — $8 billion — than the rest of state government combined.

That's why McMaster called for the utility's sale — in a bid to keep that debt from flowing to Santee Cooper's customers, which includes the state's 20 electric cooperatives.

"The governor worked to sell Santee Cooper since the beginning and wants to see it through," said McMaster's chief of staff, Trey Walker. "There is no one better to sell the governor than the governor himself."

But not everyone on the legislative committee is likely to be on board with the idea of a sale. Santee Cooper's rates are relatively low despite the nuclear project, in part because it can sell tax-free bonds and it doesn't need to earn profits for investors.

The committee will also include lawmakers with connections to the utility, according to people familiar with the matter. They include state Sen. Larry Grooms, a Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper's Moncks Corner headquarters, and Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, who formerly sat on its board.

Sign up for our new business newsletter

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

It will also include two representatives who studied the V.C. Summer fiasco — Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews.

The other members will be Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort; Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; Rep. Russell Fry, R-Surfside Beach; and Rep. Murrell Smith Jr., R-Sumter.

The committee hasn't yet scheduled its first meeting.

Andrew Brown and Jamie Lovegrove contributed to this report.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.