Don’t spend that $22 a month just yet, SCE&G customers.
But you can probably bank on it in the long run — the law is now on your side.
Which is a refreshing change.
Last week, the South Carolina Legislature ordered SCANA to reduce its rates by 15 percent through the end of the year. That wipes out most, but not all, of the ongoing charges customers have been paying for two scuttled nuclear plants.
The lower rate could take effect as soon as Tuesday. Just don’t bet on it. This still has to withstand a potential legal challenge and a Monday meeting of the Public Service Commission.
And with the threat of that much bureaucracy looming, nothing is a sure thing.
But the General Assembly inserted a little red tape of its own into state law, and it gives the PSC solid legal ground to reset rates permanently.
Basically, South Carolina law now says the PSC can deny rate increases, or reduce rates, if a utility hides pertinent information through “concealment, omission, misrepresentation, or nondisclosure of a material fact.”
All of which SCANA did to cover up its laughably incompetent management of the V.C. Summer project.
The art of compromise
There was less than universal praise for the General Assembly this week, despite some pretty solid work.
• Some people were mad the Legislature didn’t cut all nuclear payments to SCANA and Santee Cooper.
• Others were mad Gov. Henry McMaster vetoed the rate cut, forcing lawmakers to override him.
• And a few questioned why politicians were interfering with the “free market.”
Makes you wonder how much people would gripe if, say, a state utility charged them $27 a month for two nuclear plants it didn’t build. And planned to keep billing them for another two decades.
Fact is, what came out of the General Assembly’s two-day session was a pretty good compromise. Which is what politics was all about, before that became a dirty word.
The House of Representatives proposed cutting all nuclear plant surcharges to SCANA and Santee Cooper, and the governor declared he would veto anything less.
The Senate, however, feared a complete rollback would look punitive, bankrupt SCANA, scare off potential buyers and hurt the state’s prospects in the inevitable lawsuit to follow.
Those were valid points. The Senate wanted a 13 percent cut, the House wanted 18 percent, so they split the difference.
McMaster vetoed, because that’s what he promised — but he did it immediately so that lawmakers could conveniently override it while they were still in Columbia.
Call that politics, if you will, but it was a reasonable decision by state officials to take 80 percent of a loaf rather than nothing.
And while they were at it, lawmakers slipped in new language that will have an impact on that inevitable lawsuit.
Charleston state Rep. Peter McCoy, who led these efforts, says he’s happy with the outcome. As everyone should be. It's a reasonable temporary solution, and it laid the groundwork to make the lower rates permanent.
As for the “free market” argument, well that’s just baloney.
SCANA has a state-sanctioned monopoly from Columbia to the coast. It's not like we have the option to simply switch to, say, Duke Energy.
In exchange for that guaranteed customer base, and a high likelihood of profit, the state gets some say in rates.
And by popular demand, the Legislature said SCANA has been fleecing us.
Because the PSC is a judicial body, lawmakers can't simply ask what they're going to do now. But commissioners should be on board. After all, the General Assembly has made it clear what's expected — and it appoints those commissioners.
The biggest remaining hurdle is a SCANA lawsuit. The company will poor-mouth and cry that it’s had to reduce dividends by 80 percent as a result of this hardship.
Boo hoo, but nowhere does it say anyone is guaranteed life, liberty and a quarterly profit check. That is the free market.
It's a shame that SCANA employees and in-state shareholders will suffer as a result of what may turn out to be criminal activity by a few executives striving for the next level of bonuses.
If the state files charges against those executives, it certainly won't help any lawsuit — because it's been proven that company executives concealed, omitted and withheld information from the state and PSC to rip off customers for $37 million a month.
And that is not only sleazy, it is now specifically against the law.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.