COLUMBIA — Lawmakers sent a handful of bills to the House floor Tuesday to overhaul the state's utility regulations and stop millions of electric customers from paying for two unfinished nuclear reactors at V.C. Summer station.
The House Judiciary Committee approved proposals to change the state's utility regulatory commission, create a new consumer advocate to represent utility customers and increase oversight of the state's only public electric utility.
The legislation also would halt $37 million in monthly payments that currently go to SCANA, the majority owner of the failed reactors in Fairfield County, and force the investor-owned utility to pay back more than $1.7 billion it already collected for the abandoned power plant.
The bills, if passed, would keep Santee Cooper, the minority owner of the project, from charging its customers — including nearly two million customers served by the South Carolina's electric cooperatives — for the $4 billion in bonds that the state-run utility borrowed in recent years.
On the other side of the Statehouse on Tuesday, a special Senate panel proposed similar pieces of legislation to counteract the nuclear project that cost $9 billion before it was cancelled in late July and led to the dismissal of nearly 6,000 workers.
The lawmakers' actions set the stage for what is expected to be a busy 2018 legislative session that begins in January. For months, state leaders have grappled with how to deal with the cancellation of the Westinghouse-designed reactors that were under construction since 2009.
Combined, the slate of legislation could provide one of the most dramatic shifts in state utility law in more than a decade.
"We gave the utilities the keys to the kingdom and allowed them to run willy-nilly," said Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson. "That has to stop."
Electric customers with South Carolina Electric & Gas, a subsidiary of SCANA, could see their monthly electric bills drop by 18 percent under the new legislation. Both the House and Senate advanced bills that would halt those nuclear-related payments to the Cayce-based company.
While House committee moved forward legislation that could force SCANA to refund its customers for the $1.7 billion in financing charges that it has already collected, senators had reservations about whether that was possible.
"I think it’s important that we not set up that expectation for the public that they’re going get that money back," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said.
"There’s a lot of political dancing going on here, there’s a lot of showboating going on here," added Sen. Sean Bennett, R-Summersville. "For us to sit here and tell people that we are going to prevent SCANA or Santee Cooper from raising their rates is a load of bull. People’s rates are going to go up from this point forward."
Rep. Peter McCoy, a Charleston Republican who led a special House committee that investigated the nuclear project failure, expects SCANA to challenge the proposed laws in court.
Lawmakers now believe that electric customers in South Carolina haven't been represented as utilities pushed to increase their monthly bills over the past decade.
In response, lawmakers in both branches of the Legislature plan to create a new consumer advocate that will be responsible for representing only utility customers.
The question, however, is where that new watchdog should be located. The House bill would place the consumer advocate in the state Attorney General's office. But the Senate's legislation would locate the new position alongside the Office of Regulatory Staff, which will still be in charge of auditing utilities in South Carolina.
House members debated the issue at length. Placing the consumer advocate under the power of the Attorney General, some lawmakers argued, would create a "politically-motivated" office. Others worried an independent agency would turn the position into a "unaccountable bureaucrat."
The state's existing regulatory agencies are likely to be reformed, too. But lawmakers differ on how far those changes should go.
The House and Senate advanced bills that would give the Office of Regulatory Staff, the state's existing utility watchdog, the ability to subpoena information from the utilities. The proposal is a direct result of SCANA withholding a critical 2016 audit that highlighted serious construction and oversight problems at V.C. Summer.
"We saw things that were not done on the up and up. We saw a lot of deception. We saw a lot of dishonesty," said McCoy, who advocated for the regulatory changes.
Lawmakers on both sides of the Statehouse also proposed changes to the S.C. Public Service Commission, which has come under increasing political pressure since the $9 billion cancellation. That quasi-judicial body is responsible for deciding whether power plants get built and how much utilities can charge customers.
The House plans to revise the qualifications for the commission's seven members. But the Senate proposed more sweeping changes, including shrinking the commission to five members and increasing salaries to attract more qualified regulators.
Either way, the utility commission's workload could be expanded. Under the House plan, the utility regulators would also oversee the power plants and electric bills of Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper.
For decades, the public utility has been managed by its own publicly-appointed board. Santee Cooper's new chief warned lawmakers that placing the utility under the control of the commission could threaten its credit rating.
But in the aftermath of V.C. Summer, many lawmakers don't trust the decision making of Santee Cooper's board. They dismiss the notion that their actions will harm the public utility and its customers.
"We can't go forward being held hostage by fear," said Mandy Powers-Norrell, D-Lancaster.