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Santee Cooper's board met Wednesday to discuss the legislature's request that the utility pay for outside consultants. File/Staff

Santee Cooper agreed Wednesday to pay up to $15 million for several consulting firms that are needed to manage bids for the state-run utility. 

The vote comes nearly a month after state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, ordered Santee Cooper's leadership to foot the bill for those services.  

The financing will prevent a political fight from erupting between the Moncks Corner-based utility and South Carolina's top political leaders. And it enables the state's procurement agency to proceed with the bidding process for the 85-year-old power company, which has been under the microscope since it walked away from the V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion two years ago after years of delays and cost overruns. 

The General Assembly is expected to vote early next year on whether to sell Santee Cooper, hire another company to manage it or keep the utility under state control. 

Earlier this year, lawmakers set aside $5 million to hire the legal, finance, energy and business consultants they need to advise them in that process. The total cost rose to an estimated $20 million. 

Santee Cooper's leaders were initially concerned about covering the $15 million shortfall. They didn't want it to eliminate savings the utility was trying to pass along to its electric customers. 

Stephen Mudge, a board member from Clemson, said he wished lawmakers would have explicitly warned Santee Cooper it would be on the hook for the various consultants. 

Mark Bonsall, Santee Cooper's new CEO who was chosen earlier this month, said he fully supported paying for the consultants. He said it would ensure the bid process is "properly staffed." 

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Santee Cooper's share of the cost, however, are also going to be shouldered by the state's 20 electric cooperatives that buy the power it generates.

The leads of the co-ops agreed to reimburse Santee Cooper for 70% of the money in order to pursue a possible sale of the utility. 

The vote by Santee Cooper's board was unanimous, but that didn't stop members from raising other concerns. 

Peggy Pinnell, a director from Berkeley County, wanted to ensure the costs for the consultants was capped at $20 million. 

Mike Baxley, Santee Cooper's general counsel, explained the Legislature would have to request more money if the bill increases. 

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