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Years after nuclear debacle, SC still searching for new lawyer to advocate for ratepayers

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The S.C. Public Service Commission hears cases involving utility rates, among other issues. File

COLUMBIA — More than two years after a botched nuclear power project revealed flaws in South Carolina’s utility regulation process, ratepayers in the state still don't have a full-time consumer advocate to argue on their behalf.

Lawmakers tasked the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs in 2018 with arguing against utilities' efforts to raise gas, water and electricity bills. But in recent months, no one from the agency has filed briefs or testified in front of the Public Service Commission — the seven member panel that decides utility rate cases in South Carolina.

The lack of a ratepayer advocate has become apparent enough that some of the state's utility regulators have repeatedly noted their absence. 

The issue is in part a symptom of the slow-moving gears of state government.

The Legislature created the position in mid-2018 as part of a series of energy law changes in the wake of the failed multibillion-dollar V.C. Summer nuclear plant expansion, arguing that consumers needed a more prominent voice when utilities seek to raise rates.

But they could not appropriate money for the new job until the next state budgeting process the following year, when they set aside $90,000 for the Department of Consumer Affairs to hire a new full-time attorney.

Now, several months after those funds were approved, the agency has still yet to find a qualified lawyer for the job.

Bailey Parker, a spokeswoman for the department, said the opening was first posted on Aug. 21 and Sept. 15, but the position is not yet filled. In the meantime, she said the agency's director and a different consumer advocate are working in that capacity and have attended Public Service Commission meetings.

The posting was again listed online last week, "seeking an experienced regulatory attorney to advocate for utility ratepayers in promoting reliable utility service at reasonable rates."

After interviewing candidates throughout October, Parker said the department is casting a broader net, pursuing applicants nationwide as well as in South Carolina.

"Even if we don’t hire the consumer advocate in the next month, when we put together our program and we feel like there’s a need to intervene we will," Parker said.

The issue has come up during at least two recent public meetings — first last month when regulators on the Public Service Commission testified before lawmakers for an annual review, then again last week when the PSC decided a rate case for utility-scale solar farms.

Justin Williams, the vice chairman of the commission, told lawmakers he felt a consumer advocate would be helpful in restoring public trust.

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"I’d like to see an intervenor that is 110 percent-focused on the ratepayer," Williams said. "I’d like to see a consumer advocate. There has not been a consumer advocate that has presented before the commission since I’ve been there."

Members of the panel appeared surprised by the statement, believing the position would have already been filled after they created it through legislation.

"Apparently somebody is not properly following up and doing their job," said state Rep. Bill Sandifer, an Oconee Republican who chairs the House Labor, Commerce and Industry committee. "It appears that somebody has dropped the ball and is not representing the public interest as they should."

During a commission meeting last Friday, commissioner Tom Ervin again complained that a rate case for utility-scale solar farms received no input from a ratepayer representative.

"We need a consumer advocate now because this is a perfect example of how the ratepayer just got kicked to the curb," Ervin said. "We're balancing the utilities' needs versus the solar needs. Who's standing up for the ratepayers in this state? That's what I want to know. Where is the consumer advocate?"

Commissioner Swain Whitfield responded that he had been told a ratepayer advocate "would be forthcoming."

Adding a consumer advocate solely focused on representing utility ratepayers was a key component of lawmakers efforts to reform the utility system in South Carolina. It now has some of those same lawmakers questioning why it is taking so long.

"The one person put back in place to look out for the ratepayer isn't a priority?" said S.C. House Judiciary chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston. "I have no words."

There are some important upcoming cases the consumer advocate could be working on when he or she is hired.

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said during an investment call earlier this year that it planned to appeal its electric rate cases to the S.C. Supreme Court.

The consumer advocate could participate in those cases and attempt to push back against Duke's attempts to increase the profits it pulls from customers and recoup additional costs tied to the company's cleanup of coal ash in North Carolina.

Lawmakers will also likely want the consumer advocate to be in place before next year when the Dominion Energy is expected to request a rate hike for customers of S.C. Electric & Gas, which the Virginia-based energy company acquired earlier this year.

By the time Williams had finished testifying last month, lawmakers said they expect the fact that the issue came up during the hearing will prompt the agency to expedite the hiring process.

Spotting a reporter in the back of the room, S.C. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Conway, said the ongoing lack of a full-time ratepayer advocate "might even make the newspaper."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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