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S.C. lawmakers weed out candidates for state utility commission

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Public Utilities Review Committee

A small group of South Carolina lawmakers on Monday weeded out several candidates vying to become the state's next utility regulators. 

COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers began their search for three utility regulators Monday, as the state struggles with some of the nation's highest energy costs and seeks to resolve the cancellation of a $9 billion nuclear project.  

A select group of lawmakers and political appointees on the Public Utilities Review Committee interviewed 11 candidates, weeding out some of the would-be public service commissioners. 

The members of the state's Public Service Commission are some of the most important, if often overlooked, officials selected by state lawmakers. They decide how much money many South Carolinians spend every year on natural gas, water and electricity.

This year's search for three of the state's seven utility regulators, however, has taken on outsized importance — a fact emphasized by the unusually large number of people vying for the jobs. 

The commission must contend on what to do with the two unfinished V.C. Summer nuclear reactors. Lawmakers and consumers want the regulators to end forcing more than 700,000 S.C. Electric & Gas electric ratepayers to pay for the partially built project north of Columbia. And the commission will review the proposed $14.6 million sale of SCANA, SCE&G's parent, to Virginia-based Dominion.

The various candidates were questioned Monday about their qualifications for the job that pays more than $100,000 per year. They were quizzed about the use of the Base Load Review Act, the 2007 law that jump-started the V.C Summer project by allowing SCE&G to charge customers during construction.

And they were asked whether they are fit to handle the pending nuclear case, which will ultimately seal the fate of SCE&G, the majority owner of the reactors.

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The people vying for the jobs included accountants, real estate experts, energy consultants and even an on-site inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who worked at V.C. Summer.  

Only one of the current regulators on the utility commission, Elliott Elam, reapplied for his job. 

"This is what I made a career out of," said Elam, an attorney and former consumer advocate for the state. "I want to continue." 

The full House and Senate will ultimately choose the next three utility regulators, but the lawmakers on the utility review committee play a huge role in vetting those candidates. 

Unlike previous years, Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Seneca, and other lawmakers on the committee didn't ask the candidates how their decisions would affect utility investors on Wall Street. And none of the candidates professed their devotion to the nuclear project, like some of the current commissioners did in the past. 

The lawmakers did, however, bring up issues like the flights and hotel rooms that many current commissioners received from utility-backed groups. Those expenditures were uncovered by The Post and Courier late last year, and resulted in many of the current commissioners updating their reports with the state's Ethics Commission. 

The legislative committee will review three more candidates on Tuesday. 

Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.

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