COLUMBIA — Whether South Carolina Electric & Gas customers will continue shelling out millions monthly for a failed nuclear project could come down to six legislators.
Those six will sit on a not-yet-appointed committee of three House members and three senators tasked with working out a compromise.
The partially built reactors at V.C. Summer Nuclear Station, abandoned last July, account for 18 percent of SCE&G customers' electricity bills.
Earlier this year, the House approved legislation to remove all 18 percent, at least until state regulators set rates in December. But the Senate's counter-proposal, passed last week, instead cut 13 percent temporarily.
The House voted 104-7 Wednesday to reject the Senate's plan, insisting on removing all $37 million collected monthly from SCE&G customers.
"This keeps our pledge to the ratepayers," said House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill. "The ratepayer should not be on the hook any longer."
The vote sends the fight to a committee to try to reach a compromise, with just seven days left on the legislative calendar. Simrill said the move represents the only chance to "get to zero."
That means customers' only chance for even temporary relief depends on one side caving. The fight comes down to removing $27 or $19.50 from monthly bills, when averaging across all 700,000 customers.
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said he fears the vote doomed the effort, and a 13 percent cut is better than nothing.
Ott asked his colleagues whether they're allowing their anger at the utility to "cloud our judgment."
"Is it a possibility we want to punish the utility for doing something bad more than we actually want to give as much relief as we can to the ratepayer?" he said. "There are a lot of folks around the state who will take what they can get right now."
A vote to accept the Senate's plan would have sent the proposal to Gov. Henry McMaster. Ahead of the vote, the Republican governor repeated his pledge to veto anything that doesn't remove the full surcharge.
"It defies logic, it defies common sense, and it defies good faith to require the people of South Carolina to pay for something that they’re not going to get — particularly after they’ve been paying for it for years," said McMaster, who's in a five-way primary race in June in his bid for a first full term.
SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper, the minority owner, abandoned the project last July after jointly spending more than $9 billion. Customers have been paying interest on their loans through a series of rate hikes since 2009. SCE&G wants to keep charging billions over 50 years to pay off the debt.
Utilities have been lobbying hard against any cut, with officials arguing it could bankrupt the home-grown, investor-owned company and derail a proposed merger with Virginia-based Dominion Energy.
The Senate settled on a 13 percent cut after an independent study it funded determined SCE&G's parent company, SCANA, could survive that reduction.
Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he remains hopeful legislators will work it out over the coming weeks. There's enough support in the Senate to override McMaster's veto, Massey said. But if House leaders are banking on the Senate caving, he said, "Good luck with that."
The position taken by McMaster and House members, who are also up for election this year, "sounds great, but you've got to be able to defend it" in court, Massey said, and he fears it's "not at all defensible."
SCE&G is expected to sue if the Legislature manages to pass a law cutting rates. A 2007 state law encouraged the project by allowing the utility to charge customers upfront. A lawsuit is already challenging that law.
"We arrived at our position after a thorough consideration. We didn't just come up with a random number," Massey said. "We went with a position we feel confident will most help ratepayers."
Ott noted neither proposal would reimburse customers any of the money they've already sunk into the project.
"We're not going to make the ratepayers whole, and anyone who says that isn’t being straight up," he said. "We’re not talking about sending money back. We’re talking about the rates moving forward."