COLUMBIA — Cuts to South Carolina Electric & Gas power bills might not happen at all because of political games over who appears to be fighting harder for customers.
It comes down to a fight over whether to temporarily stop all — or just some — of the $27 that customers pay on average each month for a massive nuclear reactor project abandoned last July. The project accounts for 18 percent of SCE&G customers' bills.
The S.C. House voted to remove all of the nuclear-related charges, at least until state regulators make a final decision on rates in December. But SCE&G's parent company, Cayce-based SCANA, said it could go bankrupt without the monthly nuclear payments from its 700,000 customers and it could threaten its $14.6 billion sale to Virginia energy giant Dominion.
The state Senate voted last week instead to reduce the nuclear charges customer pay by 13 percent after a study determined SCANA could survive that cut. The bill then went back to the House, where all the seats are up for election this year.
Faced with a choice of having customers pay $7.50 a month for reactors that will never work or freeing them of that burden altogether, the House is expected Wednesday to reject the Senate's plan, insisting on keeping its pledge to cut all nuclear charges, according to multiple sources.
The House's move will send the dispute to a committee of lawmakers from both chambers who will try to hash out the differences. But that's a risky move with just eight days left in the regular legislative session, especially if Sen. Brad Hutto, a Orangeburg Democrat who opposes the rate cuts and held up debate, is put on the negotiating committee as threatened.
That could mean no rate cuts at all.
Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said he believes SCE&G customers would rather save 13 percent off their bills than get nothing.
"Clearly, it's not as good as zero, but it's awfully good," Finlay said.
In reality, SCE&G customers face a no-win situation being forced to pay for the partially built reactors north of Columbia.
Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, who is running for his first full term this year, continues to promise to veto any bill that doesn't remove all of the charges as he has advocated for since his State of the State address in January.
While there is plenty of backing in the House to override McMaster's veto, the Senate's vote on the rate bill last week indicates there's not enough support to reverse the governor's decision.
Even if the House voted Wednesday to accept the Senate's offer and send the bill to McMaster, his veto could essentially kill it.
The only chances for consumers appears to be either a few senators switching their votes on a possible veto or Statehouse negotiators agreeing to a full rate cut.
SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper jointly spent more than $9 billion on the expansion of V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Fairfield County before abandoning it as construction lagged and costs soared. SCE&G expects to charge customers billions more over the next 50 years to pay off the debt.
Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said if the House votes Wednesday to reject the Senate's offer, "I believe there's no chance of success."
"The House from the beginning has consistently fought on behalf of the ratepayers and advocated for every penny of relief we feel they deserve," he said. However, "knowing the level of opposition lined up to kill the bill again, I think concurring with the Senate is the most prudent and logical thing to do."
No matter what happens, customers likely wouldn't see lower bills anytime soon. If the Legislature votes to stop payments, SCE&G is expected to sue. A 2007 state law allowed the utility to charge customers upfront. That law is already being challenged in court.