SanteeCooperBoard

The Santee Cooper board meets earlier this month to approve CEO Mark Bonsall's business plan.

When the sell-Santee-Cooper-no-matter-what crowd persuaded the Legislature to solicit purchase bids, the don’t-sell-Santee-Cooper-no-matter-what crowd managed to let the state-owned utility submit a competing proposal to reform itself.

The problem is that Santee Cooper can’t reform itself without the Legislature’s help.

What we’ve seen so far are parts of Santee Cooper’s business plan: to phase out dirty, costly coal plants and buy cheaper electricity on the open market, grow its solar energy in conjunction with battery storage, slim down its management costs and keep power bills from rising.

Those are all encouraging because they raise the bar on what bidders will have to offer, and mean a better deal for ratepayers whether Santee Cooper is sold or not. But they’re also things Santee Cooper could have and should have done long ago. The fact that it didn’t act much sooner goes back to the fundamental problem with the utility: It’s not accountable to anyone.

The governor appoints a board of directors, but he can’t remove individual directors, much less the entire board, unless they break the law or commit one of a small list of other offenses, such as not showing up at meetings. They can’t be removed for making disastrous decisions, like helping then-partner SCANA hide information that state regulators needed in order to deny continued rate increases on a nuclear construction project it wasn’t properly managing at the V.C. Summer Station. (Board members at SCE&G owner SCANA no longer have those jobs because SCANA no longer exists.)

And unlike SCANA and purchaser Dominion Energy, Santee Cooper doesn’t have to get approval from the S.C. Public Service Commission to raise rates, or to embark on $11 billion construction projects that turn into $20 billion construction projects that get abandoned before they ever produce a single watt of electricity. Santee Cooper can do all that and more with the approval of its board of directors. Whose members can’t be removed for making lousy decisions.

Santee Cooper’s new CEO, Mark Bonsall, has told our editorial staff that although he opposes letting the PSC set rates, he would support a law requiring customer input before raising rates, requiring state approval to borrow money or start new construction projects and capping power-rate increases at, say, the rate of inflation.

But simply saying you don’t oppose something is much different than actually supporting it. Or advocating it. Or making it part of your mission. If Santee Cooper is serious about turning over a new leaf, then the reform proposal it submits needs to include more than Mr. Bonsall’s business plan. It needs to include an actual reform plan, one with proposed legislation to make all of those changes he supports.

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That reform plan also needs to include proposed legislation to let the governor remove his appointees for any or no reason, like the law allowed before the Legislature got worried that then-Gov. Mark Sanford was plotting for his appointees to sell the utility.

Those proposals might not sit well with some Santee Cooper board members, but including them would show tremendous good faith, something the agency has a bit of a deficit in right now.

In fact, in assessing the proposals, legislators should consider the possibility that if the utility manages to stop a potential sale, it could go back to its old ways. Giving the governor the ability to fire board members, and giving the PSC either direct or indirect control over rate increases and building plans, would be the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen.