Judicial Elections

Members of the South Carolina Black Legislative Caucus discuss their concerns with judicial elections in the General Assembly on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Columbia. The caucus was upset that two black women lost the only contested races to white candidates. Jeffrey Collins/AP

The S.C. Legislative Black Caucus had a moment last week.

First, they challenged executives from Dominion Energy on Tuesday about those $1,000 checks the Virginia power giant promised customers right after offering to buy South Carolina Electric & Gas parent company SCANA Corp.

Though the checks are no longer on the table, black lawmakers wanted an explanation and felt disrespected that the new owner of SCANA "played the race card" by sending some African-American executives to a meeting rather than its top brass on an issue brought up by their constituents.

"We didn't like them going behind closed doors and flipping the script at the last minute," state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said of pulling back the $1,000 checks. 

A day later, 20 black lawmakers walked out of the House chamber after two African-American judicial hopefuls lost elections in the General Assembly to white candidates.

"The vote went down simply to partisan politics," state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, said during a speech on the House floor. "We are better than that South Carolina."

The events have strengthened the voice of the 45-member caucus.    

"We are no longer going to allow things to be swept under the rug," said Rep. John King, a Rock Hill Democrat and former caucus chairman. "We are going to call people out.

"I hate that we have to talk about race, but, with what's happened, you must speak out."

All this has happened a week before the caucus meets with Gov. Henry McMaster. 

Members already were going to talk to the Republican chief executive on Tuesday about criminal justice reform, health care, economic development and education — an issue Republicans are pursuing only after years of pushing by black lawmakers, said Rep. Jerry Govan, an Orangeburg Democrat who leads the black caucus.

"We have made this a focal point for so long," Govan said. "Now all of a sudden, it's a big issue."

But after what happened last week, McMaster can expect to also hear about the Dominion checks and judicial elections, as well as plans to sell state-owned electric utility Santee Cooper, another issue that made headlines last week with word of bids of up to $9 billion. 

McMaster and Bright Matthews

Gov. Henry McMaster chats with state Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Walterboro, on Wednesday at the S.C. Statehouse. Bright Matthews said she spoke with the governor about the lack of black representation on a panel looking at selling state-owned utility Santee Cooper. Seanna Adcox/Staff

Bright Matthews was spotted with McMaster in the Statehouse lobby Wednesday where she said they chatted about how a panel reviewing the utility sale, which includes the governor, has no African-Americans. 

Black caucus members said they should have a voice on the sale panel since Santee Cooper and its biggest customers — some 20 electric cooperatives — serve the state's rural areas with heavy minority populations.

Santee Cooper has become vulnerable after doubling its debt to $8 billion as a partner in the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion with SCE&G.

SCE&G was sold to Dominion because of its role in what's considered the biggest business failure in state history.  

While Dominion spends a good chunk of change on new ads announcing their arrival in South Carolina, members of the black caucus want them to reconsider an earlier pitch made when the Virginia utility was wooing the public on its massive offer to buy SCE&G's parent company.

SCE&G customers were going to get $1,000 checks on average if the sale went through, Dominion pledged in ubiquitous ads.

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The checks went away after Dominion offered deeper rate cuts that were approved by the state, but some customers still expect them.

Gilliard wants state utility regulators to give SCE&G customers the choice of getting a check with a smaller rate cut or take the bigger rate cut. He introduced a resolution with a number of black lawmakers.

The state-approved deal without the checks saves customers more dough in the long run. 

Here's the rough math: Residential customers were set to pay about $6,500 on average over the next 20 years for abandoned project if nothing changed.

Under Dominion's plan with the check, customers who were going to get that $1,000 would shell out nearly $5,000 over the next two decades.

Now customers are going to pay about $1,700.

Not so fast, Gilliard says: Dominion could ask for rate hikes in the future. So why not offer money now to customers who want it.

"Dominion is now coming on the same tide SCANA is leaving out on — the tide of being disingenuous, disrespectful, not transparent," Gilliard said. "That's not good. They can put up all the commercials up there that they want about, 'We're here.' No, resolve the first problem first."

Dominion has no plans to make changes besides keep telling customers the checks are not coming: "We understand that some customers may be disappointed, but we believe customers and South Carolina will benefit from long-term bill relief instead of up-front cash refunds."

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.