COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley declined a request Monday to testify at a Senate hearing over whether she played a role in a controversial environmental decision that critics say gives Savannah's port a competitive edge over Charleston's.
The first-term Republican governor told Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, in a letter that she will not attend a Senate committee hearing set for Nov. 29.
Haley said she would "respectfully decline" based on the state's separation of powers doctrine and the fact that she is unaware of any previous governors who have participated in any similar legislative inquiries.
"Nevertheless, my staff and I are glad to meet with you and the committee staff," the governor wrote.
Peeler asked in a letter sent Friday for Haley to come to the hearing along with her top aides and a stack of letters and emails between the governor, her staff, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and Georgia officials.
It was not clear late Monday if Peeler will attempt to subpoena Haley to testify. He has been one of the Legislature's biggest Haley supporters.
Peeler said the decision to subpoena the governor will be up to the full committee. "I will decide my vote after seeing the materials Governor Haley provides," Peeler said.
The controversy started this month when the board that oversees the Department of Health and Environmental Control voted to approve a water-quality permit for Georgia. The action cleared a hurdle for Georgia in its effort to dredge the Savannah port.
The port needs to be deepened so it can handle larger ships in 2014 when the Panama Canal is widened. South Carolina officials have been working to make sure Charleston's port is ready as well.
The DHEC board's unanimous vote reversed a staff decision to deny the permit in late September after a year-long review of the situation. Part of the approved plan includes an agreement from Georgia to pay for devices that will pump oxygen into the Savannah River to help protect plant and animal life and a freshwater marsh.
The board was appointed by Haley, and at least two members have contributed to her campaign. Haley said she did not influence their decision.
Critics, specifically Democratic lawmakers, have questioned whether Haley tried to influence the board, an allegation she denies. Those lawmakers -- including Rep. Leon Stavrinakis of Charleston and Sen. Vincent Sheheen of Camden -- questioned Haley's motives. Sheheen lost the 2010 gubernatorial election to Haley.
Haley has said she stands by the board. "I back them up completely," she said last week. "… I had the governor of Georgia fly to South Carolina and respectfully ask that our full board hear their request. I gave him the courtesy as I know he and every other governor would give to me."
Haley said Georgia did not originally meet South Carolina's standards to qualify for the permit, but that changed when the state promised a financial commitment to help protect the river for the next 50 years.
Besides, Haley said, the Army Corps of Engineers had taken the position that South Carolina's approval was unnecessary anyway.
The situation is destined for the courts. "I without question know that the Charleston port will be the most successful port in the Southeast," the governor said.
Sheheen asked Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell to convene a Senate panel to investigate. McConnell said the appropriate panel is Peeler's and forwarded the request Nov. 15.
Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803- 926-7855.