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Senate President Harvey Peeler (right) with Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler

COLUMBIA — The S.C. Senate formed its own Santee Cooper sale study committee Thursday, the latest sign that deciding the future of the state-owned utility will not happen quickly.

The study panel includes four senators who sit on a joint committee that includes House members and Gov. Henry McMaster that recently received a consultant's report on 15 offers from 10 bidders wanting to buy or manage Santee Cooper.

Senate President Harvey Peeler said he created the new panel after believing House leaders and McMaster have settled on selling the Moncks Corner-based utility. He stopped paying for a consultant hired by the joint committee to gather and evaluate offers.

Peeler wants the Senate committee — led by Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-West Columbia — to examine a sale and how it would work. 

"I'm not going to sign a blank check," the Gaffney Republican said.

Peeler does not have a timetable for the Senate panel to reach a conclusion and says he does not have an opinion about selling Santee Cooper.

"I want to know more," he said,

Peeler's new study panel came as a surprise in the Statehouse where lawmakers are trying to balance how to handle a debt-laden utility with keeping happy 1,700 employees and nearly 1 million power customers. Santee Cooper is considered an economic development driver because of its competitive rates.

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said Thursday, "The only thing the governor is determined to do is what’s right by Santee Cooper’s ratepayers and South Carolina’s taxpayers," and that McMaster is "not sure that studying a study committee is the best way to do that."

The governor has said he thinks selling the utility makes sense after amassing $8 billion in debt — half of which came from Santee Cooper's partnership in the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion, north of Columbia. 

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, supports selling Santee Cooper if it benefits customers who are facing a huge rate increase to cover the debt, Lucas' chief of staff Michael Anzelmo said. 

The House has no plans to form its own Santee Cooper study panel, he said. The joint committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to go over next steps with the consultant, Anzelmo said.

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Lucas hopes to share a proposal with the House before the session ends in May, Anzelmo said.

Sen. Paul Campbell, a Goose Creek Republican who co-chairs the joint committee, has said he expects the review to last through all of 2019. Campbell and Sen. Larry Grooms, a Charleston Republican whose district includes Santee Cooper's headquarters, are on the new Senate study panel. 

The four bids to buy Santee Cooper that passed all criteria set by the joint committee ranged from $7.9 billion to $9.2 billion, which would have been higher if not for Santee Cooper’s massive debt, according to ICF, the Virginia-based technology consultant hired to evaluate offers.

The four bids would not make customers pay for the debt, ICF said. 

The names of the bidders were not revealed. The Post and Courier verified that Pacolet Milliken of Greenville, Duke Energy of North Carolina and the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, submitted offers. The co-ops are Santee Cooper's biggest customers.

Other reported suitors include NextEra Energy of Florida and Dominion Energy of Virginia, the new owner of S.C. Electric & Gas parent, SCANA.

Correction: Story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of Santee Cooper's total debt. 

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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.