COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers moved swiftly Thursday to override Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of a proposal to clip S.C. Electric & Gas’s electricity rates, raising the possibility that the utility’s bills could be slashed as early as next week.
Nearly 150 lawmakers in the House and the Senate voted Thursday to press on with their plan to cut SCE&G’s electricity rates by 15 percent. Only one agreed with the governor, who vetoed just minutes before the Legislature rebuked him.
The whirlwind in the Statehouse came a day after House and Senate lawmakers brokered a compromise over how to answer the demise of the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project last year. The failed effort to build a pair of nuclear reactors in Fairfield County accounts for 18 percent of SCE&G ratepayers’ bills, or $27 a month for the typical home.
Under the plan pushed by the Legislature, SCE&G could have to stop charging most of that — about $22 for the average customer — within five days.
The plan is almost certain to draw a legal challenge from SCE&G, which declined to comment Thursday. The utility has said it believes the measure is "unconstitutional."
McMaster’s veto was not a show of support for the power company. Instead, he told lawmakers they should go further and stop letting the utility charge anything for its abandoned project. He asked the Legislature to stay in session until they agreed.
"I am vetoing this bill because it is unacceptable, irresponsible, and unconscionable for any South Carolinian to pay another dime to SCANA for the abandoned V.C. Summer reactors in Fairfield County," McMaster wrote in his veto letter. “Because this bill does not fully protect the ratepayers, I am returning the same without my signature.”
His message was quickly ignored. Lawmakers took a break from finishing the state’s annual budget to override his veto. The House voted within minutes of receiving his letter.
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said McMaster was simply posturing. Ott helped lead a committee that investigated the V.C. Summer project after construction was called off last July.
"The truth of the matter is if this veto is sustained, the rate will remain at 18 percent," Ott said. "I think it's shameful that the governor of this state would play this kind of game."
Rep. James Smith, McMaster's Democratic opponent in the race for governor, didn't cast a vote Thursday. He and his running mate, Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, left the chamber before lawmakers voted to override McMaster's veto. Smith and Norrell voted against the rate-cut measure the day before.
Under the Legislature’s plan, the state’s utility regulators have until early next week to formally order the rate reduction. They could vote against it, though that's considered unlikely since lawmakers appoint the regulators.
The temporary rate would stay in place until the seven members of the state’s Public Service Commission make a final decision on who pays for the nuclear project later this year.
Lawmakers also nudged regulators to make their rate cut permanent by narrowing the terms that would allow SCE&G to charge for the reactors.
The deal also gives Dominion Energy cover to walk away from its plans to buy SCE&G’s Cayce-based parent company, SCANA Corp., though it appears to be sticking with its offer for now. Virginia-based Dominion offered a partial refund of the roughly $2 billion SCE&G has collected for the project and a rate reduction.
"It looks like a permanent solution — with refunds and rate cuts — will be delayed until later this year as the legal system sorts out these matters," Dominion said in a statement. "We certainly hope this will occur as soon as possible for the sake of SCE&G customers."
Dominion's decision to hold out hope came after SCANA decided Thursday to slash its quarterly payouts to shareholders. That means the company won’t have to borrow money to make up for its ratepayers’ lower bills.