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Editorial: NextEra document dive should prompt SC limits on utility lobbying

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SC Staterhouse lobby

A S.C. Senate panel is asking NextEra for information about its lobbying efforts since the collapse of the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in 2017. Here, lobbyists mill about the space between the Senate and House chambers.

With S.C. House leaders pushing to negotiate the sale of Santee Cooper to NextEra and Senate leaders signaling that they might be interested in offloading the state-owned utility despite huge problems with the initial proposal, it’s good to see a handful of senators working to make sure we know more about NextEra’s lobbying campaign.

The Post and Courier’s Avery Wilks reports that a special Senate Judiciary subcommittee plans to ask NextEra for communications between its lobbyists and state lawmakers, a list of campaign donations by NextEra and its employees, direct and indirect payments to state legislators and businesses with which they are associated, and any other spending in South Carolina, including for efforts to build public support for the deal by paying political bloggers, business groups and social media influencers. The request dates to the July 2017 decision by Santee Cooper and the now-defunct SCE&G to abandon work on the $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project.

Until now, Santee Cooper’s defenders have behaved primarily as obstructionists — working to block not only efforts to sell the utility but even efforts to reform a state agency that has functioned autonomously and often arrogantly, putting its own interests ahead of those of state taxpayers or its own ratepayers. But this latest effort, while still designed to prevent a sale, could help the Legislature make the best decision about a sale and also to improve how our state regulates monopolies.

Note that senators had to specifically request the information — and threaten to subpoena it if NextEra doesn’t comply.

That should remind us that although state law requires legislators to report the sources of their income and requires businesses to report their campaign donations and their lobbying activities, those laws have huge loopholes that allow companies to obscure the scope of their efforts to convince legislators to give them the benefit of the doubt. And even without the loopholes, those laws likely wouldn’t capture all the efforts deep-pocketed interests undertake to endear themselves to legislators.

Based on NextEra’s initial bid, it seems doubtful that lawmakers can work out a sale that would actually benefit Santee Cooper customers and our state rather than simply satisfy philosophical desires to get the state out of the utility business.

Still, we hope legislators persist in their courtship of NextEra at least long enough for the utility to have to comply with the requests; it's likely to be eye-popping to see the degree to which the utility went to make it easy for individual legislators to feel its friendly presence but difficult for the public to measure it.

We hope it also will serve to remind legislators just how valuable it is to own an electric utility that is granted monopoly status in South Carolina — essentially a license to print money — and drive them to impose long-overdue restrictions on how those businesses ingratiate themselves to the legislators who decide whether our state will grant monopoly status to companies, and how profitable that status can be.

The U.S. Supreme Court has limited how much we can regulate money in politics. But we can impose all sorts of restrictions in return for granting companies a monopoly. So the Legislature can prohibit regulated utilities, their executives and affiliated organizations from offering employment, campaign donations or gifts to legislators. It can ban them from making donations to dark-money organizations. And ban or restrict other activities, depending on what other types of generosity the documents turn up. And that is precisely what it needs to do, regardless of Santee Cooper's fate.

Those laws wouldn't apply to NextEra unless it purchases Santee Cooper, but they would apply to Dominion and Duke energy, which also have every incentive to make state legislators feel good about them.

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