COLUMBIA — South Carolina lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday to allow the Legislature to hire new legal and technical advisers who can negotiate with several investment firms and power companies interested in buying Santee Cooper, the state-run utility.
The proposal, which moved quickly through a committee and to the House floor, could allow outside consultants to narrow down a field of buyers to a single purchase offer. That would enable the General Assembly to vote on whether to offload the public utility that has powered large swaths of South Carolina for more than 80 years.
If passed by the entire Legislature, the bill would provide significant momentum toward the sale of Santee Cooper, which supplies electricity to 179,000 direct customers and 788,000 ratepayers with South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives.
State senators debated a similar resolution last week that would have put the bidding process for Santee Cooper in the hands of Gov. Henry McMaster and the state's procurement agency. The House version leaves the power to sell the utility solely in the hands of the General Assembly.
Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said the resolution would allow the House and Senate to bypass the arguments they've had in recent weeks over how to proceed in with four purchase offers that were reviewed earlier this year. But he said that any possible sale is still a long way off.
Smith, the chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, said the House leadership is still considering other options for Santee Cooper, including hiring a private energy company to manage the utility or reforming how the public utility is operated and governed.
"The one thing that cannot continue is the status quo of Santee Cooper," Smith said.
"Time is of the essence in this process. We can't sit on our hands any longer, and expect this to go away," he added.
The state-run utility has been under political fire ever since it cancelled construction on two unfinished nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer station in Fairfield County nearly two years ago. It owned just under half of that $9 billion nuclear project and borrowed more than $4 billion in bonds to finance the massive construction project before it was abandoned in July 2017.
Gov. Henry McMaster has campaigned and advocated for a sale of the utility ever since.
The leaders of South Carolina's electric cooperatives — Santee Cooper's largest customers and an interested buyer — threw their support behind that proposed sale on Tuesday.
Mike Couick, CEO of The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, said he was skeptical that any interested buyers would be capable of paying off Santee Cooper's outstanding debt of just under $8 billion.
But he and the other cooperative leaders have come around to support a proposed sale ever since an independent consultant hired by the Legislature suggested at least four bids could pay down the massive bond debt and halt any further rate increases for electric customers.
"The co-ops have evolved," Couick told state lawmakers.
Couick, however, suggested the cooperatives were not in support of signing an agreement that would allow a private utility company to manage Santee Cooper. He said such proposals would do nothing to stop Santee Cooper from charging co-op customers for the abandoned $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear project.
The electric co-ops and Santee Cooper remain locked in fight over that issue in state court. Attorneys for the 20 co-ops have asked a judge to stop Santee Cooper from charging co-op customers for the abandoned reactors, a move that could financially cripple the state-run utility.
Couick told lawmakers that any corporation interested in taking over Santee Cooper would have to settle the lawsuit with the cooperatives, too.