COLUMBIA — A ranking South Carolina Republican said if Gov. Henry McMaster's pick to lead the Santee Cooper's board shows up at next month's meeting, lawmakers will have no choice but to take the governor to court.
"We've only got one recourse and I'd really rather not do that," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said Tuesday of McMaster's pick of Charlie Condon.
"But if he is going to force us to do it, that's what we're going to do," said Massey, R-Edgefield.
Massey is one of several leaders in the state Senate considering a lawsuit against McMaster after the governor on Monday unilaterally appointed Condon, the state's former attorney general, as the temporary chairman of Santee Cooper's Board of Directors.
The lawmakers contend the governor doesn't have the authority to single-handedly put Condon at the head of the state-run utility, setting up a constitutional standoff. It marks the second time in less than a year McMaster has pushed to assert his control over the Santee Cooper board, testing the powers of the governorship and continuing his crusade to sell the state-run utility.
"It will be a matter of a judicial interpretation," said Sen. Luke Rankin, a Republican from Conway who heads the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee. "Clearly, the law does not support their position."
The dispute comes down to a single question: Does the governor have the power to appoint someone after the Senate fails to confirm that same person during a legislative session?
After the appointment was announced, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman sent a letter to McMaster arguing the governor missed his chance. McMaster could have seated Condon on the board if he'd acted before the 2018 legislative session began back in January, said Leatherman, R-Florence.
Instead, the governor waited more than three months to ask state senators to approve Condon as the full-time chairman.
"The fact that the Senate has not yet completed its work does not condone executive action that is contrary to the law and to the way appointments have been handled by Republican and Democrat Governors alike," Leatherman told him.
The governor's office says otherwise.
Brian Symmes, McMaster's spokesman, said Condon is ready to take the reigns at Santee Cooper and as far as the administration is concerned, the seat is his.
"He's chairman of the board now and is ready to get to work for ratepayers," Symmes said.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Senate has sued the governor’s office. In 2011, then-Gov. Nikki Haley tried to order legislators back into session to take up four bills she wanted passed. As a result, former Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell sued, saying Haley's order violated the law and intruded on legislators' authority.
The state Supreme Court sided with McConnell the same day.
Santee Cooper has been a focus of the governor for nearly a year — ever since the utility's investment in two nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station went bust. He began advocating for a sale of the state-run utility just weeks after the $9 billion nuclear project was cancelled last August.
Since then, McMaster has pressured Santee Cooper to turn over emails and documents related to the project. He's referred to the state-run utility as a "rogue agency."
In December, McMaster pushed to fire Leighton Lord, the utility's previous chairman.
In response, Lord filed his own lawsuit in state court. The case was ultimately dismissed after Lord, a Columbia attorney, voluntarily stepped aside later that month.
McMaster's spat with the Senate may serve as prelude of the political battles yet to come. The Legislature recently established a new committee to help determine the future of Santee Cooper, as the utility continues to deal with the fallout of two abandoned nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station.
Last week, McMaster appointed himself to that panel, offering the governor a chance to personally push his agenda and challenge Santee Cooper's biggest defenders in the Legislature.
The committee hearings have yet to be scheduled.
Lawmakers who represent areas within the footprint of Santee Cooper electric customers say they aren't going to simply go along with the governor's push to privatize the utility.
"It seems like his agenda is to sell Santee Cooper," said Sen. Larry Grooms, a Charleston Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper's headquarters.
"But I think the agenda should be what is in the best interest of ratepayers and the state."