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Santee Cooper leaders approve new budget. It remains secret for now.

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Santee Cooper passed a new budget Monday, but the details of that spending will remain a secret until next year. File/Staff

Santee Cooper approved its new budget, but the details of how the state-run utility plans to spend its money will remain a secret until next month. 

The board members for Santee Cooper met in executive session on Monday to discuss the utility's finances, which are usually public information. 

The board passed the 2020 budget for the Moncks Corner-based utility. But it released limited information to prevent people from learning any details about its plan to keep the 85-year-old public utility under state control. 

The S.C. Legislature plans to vote next year on whether to sell Santee Cooper, hire another company to manage the utility or keep the business under its current management. 

Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said the board was prohibited by the state Department of Administration from releasing the full budget because it could influence the ongoing bidding process for the utility. 

The problem is the new budget contains spending plans and information that would clue people into the bid Santee Cooper submitted to South Carolina's 170 state lawmakers last month. 

The budget would likely highlight how quickly Santee Cooper plans to pay down its bond debt, including the roughly $3.6 billion still owed on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project. Santee Cooper was the minority owner of that project, where $9 billion was spent before the two reactors were canceled in 2017. 

The budget could also reveal what additional investments Santee Cooper wants to make in the next couple years as it transitions away from some of its coal-fired power plants. It already announced plans to close some of its coal units over the next decade. 

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Megan Moore, a spokeswoman for the Administration Department, said the agency pressed Santee Cooper not to include its "reform" efforts in the new budget. Those plans won't be implemented anyway, Moore pointed out, unless the Legislature votes to keep Santee Cooper under state control.

Bill Rogers, the executive director for the South Carolina Press Association, called it "outrageous" that a state agency can't release its budget for members of the public to see. He also noted that the law the legislature passed to set up the bidding process for Santee Cooper says nothing about the utility's budget being confidential. 

If there are portions of the budget that are claimed to be proprietary, Rogers said that information can be redacted. But the rest of the document should be available to the public, he said. 

“As soon as we are legally able to, Santee Cooper will gladly provide full details about how the reform plan ... impacts customers," Mark Bonsall, Santee Coopers' CEO, said in a press release. 

The only information released from the budget Monday were high level numbers. It showed the utility expects to spend $715 million on the electric and water systems that it runs over the next year. 

By comparison, the utility announced a $2.1 billion budget for the same systems last year. 

The new budget won't be fully revealed until mid-January, when state officials unveil the other bids for the state-run utility. 

For now, lawmakers, Santee Cooper's potential buyers and the utility's ratepayers will remain in the dark. 

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

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