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SCANA customers might be forced to pay another $370 million before utility regulators can act

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The S.C. Statehouse in Columbia. File/Andrew Brown/Staff 

COLUMBIA — SCANA electric customers may pay another $370 million for the V.C. Summer project before the state's utility regulators can decide if the company — or the ratepayers — foot the bill for the unfinished nuclear reactors in the coming decades. 

That is if the state Senate refuses to pass a bill that temporarily cuts off the $37 million SCANA collects for the abandoned reactors every month.

Members of the House and Senate seem to be at odds over several nuclear-related bills as lawmakers near the third month of the 2018 legislative session. 

Last week, state senators voted overwhelmingly for a plan that gives regulators on the Public Service Commission until Dec. 21 to review SCANA's handling of the troubled reactors. 

That legislation still needs to be approved by the lawmakers in the House. If it goes into effect, it will ensure the financial crisis caused by the $9 billion nuclear cancellation won't be figured out until the end of the year.

House members say the drawn-out schedule makes it even more necessary for state senators to pass the House's legislation that shuts down SCANA's nuclear-related charges while seven utility regulators sort out the decade-long energy project. 

The House voted 119-1 to pass that legislation in late January, bucking SCANA and a large team of utility lobbyists. The Senate scheduled a subcommittee hearing on that bill for Wednesday afternoon. 

"The Senate's inaction continues to be very expensive for ratepayers," said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, a Columbia Republican who helped push the House legislation. 

The average SCANA customer pays more than $27 per month — or 18 percent of their bill — for the abandoned nuclear reactors. Finlay, who was a member of the special House committee that investigated V.C. Summer, said the Senate is "picking" customers pockets every day they don't act. 

The Senate is more wary than House members about cutting off the flow of cash to SCANA. Many Senate members are uneasy about possibly pushing SCANA into bankruptcy, as the company has warned.

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Others are concerned about killing Dominion's $14.6 billion offer to takeover SCANA. Some worry about passing the House legislation and losing a protracted legal battle to SCANA in the state's court system. 

Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, voiced many of those reservations Tuesday. Lawmakers shouldn't fool themselves into believing they can undo the entire $9 billion mistake, he said. 

"I just want to make sure that what we do doesn't cause further injury, and I'm not comfortable in rushing legislation without understanding the consequences of what we're doing," he said. 

Duels between the state House and Senate are nothing new. Some lawmakers joke there is a bigger divide between the two bodies than there is between Republicans and Democrats. 

But representatives say the Senate's delayed response to the nuclear charges is frustrating considering SCANA ratepayers already paid nearly $2 billion for the abandoned reactors since 2009. The money ratepayers dump into the project in the coming months, House members point out, will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from SCANA even if regulators determine the company didn't make "prudent" decisions at V.C. Summer. 

Rep. Micah Caskey, R-West Columbia, believes the House did the difficult job of drafting the legislation. He understands if senators want to tweak the bill to make sure they win any lawsuit SCANA might throw at them. But he says the Senate needs to at least consider the bill. 

"I think we are open to refining the bill if there are legitimate concerns," Caskey said. "But if the Senate is more interested in kicking the can down the road to the detriment of innocent ratepayers, I don't see the House getting on board with that." 

If the Senate fails to move on the legislation, House members say they may ignore the Senate's proposal to extend the clock for the public service commissioners until December. If that happens, every attempt to respond to V.C. Summer will effectively be derailed by the friction between the two bodies. 

"I understand they want to move forward with a certain level of deliberation, but I'm not prepared at this point to make my constituents continue to pay 18 percent during that period of time," said Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews. "All they are doing is extending the amount of time where the ratepayer is going to have to pay this premium." 

The 2018 session is scheduled to wrap up May 10.

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

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