COLUMBIA — A proposal introduced Thursday in the South Carolina House creates a legislative process for selling Santee Cooper, ensuring the Legislature maintains control of any potential sale.
Republican and Democratic leaders filed the measure a day after Senate President Harvey Peeler stunned his colleagues by introducing legislation directing Gov. Henry McMaster to sell the public utility.
While both measures advocate selling South Carolina's only state-owned utility, they create widely divergent paths for doing so.
Peeler's proposal turned control over to the Republican governor who has been pushing to sell the utility for over a year, ceding authority held by lawmakers.
Under current state law, only the Legislature can approve whether to sell the New Deal-era utility, which provides electricity to about 2 million customers throughout the state, mostly through 20 electric co-operatives.
The House plan keeps the issue before a joint House and Senate committee that has been studying what to do with Santee Cooper for the last eight months.
House Speaker Jay Lucas said it's the more responsible path, taking a slight dig at Wednesday's shocker in the Senate.
"We have introduced a thoughtful, workable road map," said Lucas, R-Hartsville. "I am pleased that President Peeler has recognized that the time has come to sell Santee Cooper. Now we also have the way."
Under Lucas' plan, the joint committee — which McMaster sits on — would continue its "due diligence" in evaluating the bids it received last month and negotiate a "best and final written contractual offer" with a buyer.
The committee would forward the offer to the Legislature for final approval.
Fifteen bids submitted as part of the committee’s review came from 10 separate investment firms and power companies. The bids, announced last month, included offers for all or parts of the public utility or to manage its power plants and utility lines.
McMaster has advocated selling Santee Cooper since soon after the public utility and partner South Carolina Electric & Gas bailed on completing two reactors at V.C. Sumner Nuclear Station in July 2017 after jointly spending $9 billion.
The governor has said selling the utility headquartered in Berkeley County, or parts of it, could be the only way to provide relief to its customers. The partially completed reactors account for half of the utility’s $8 billion debt.
McMaster praised Lucas' leadership a day after applauding the very different Senate proposal. Both bills, however, would accomplish the governor's goal of selling Santee Cooper.
"His action today demonstrates that a growing consensus is building in both chambers towards the sale of Santee Cooper," said McMaster, who likewise praised Peeler's plan on Wednesday. "While we must continue the thoughtful and deliberate process of evaluating a sale, we cannot afford inaction or delay.”
The House measure is co-sponsored by House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill; House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter; House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia; and the Democrats' assistant minority leader, Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews.
The back-to-back introductions do signify a huge shift in legislators' willingness to sell the utility that powered rural South Carolina, maintains a 180,000-acre lake system used for recreation, and aids in luring industries to South Carolina with reduced electricity rates.
Lucas' resolution specifies that any potential buyer must maintain lakes Moultrie and Marion and all of the utility's other recreational assets; agree to partner with the state on economic development deals; and take over all of Santee Cooper's debt, while also providing "meaningful rate relief" to customers and protecting the utility's employees and retirees.
Peeler's Senate colleagues seem more apt to go along with the House plan.
His resolution appeared on the fast track, as it was under debate by the full Senate Finance Committee within a few hours of its introduction. But the committee quickly put on the brakes, with senators saying they need to know the details before agreeing blindly to what amounts to a fire sale.
"This is going to affect probably two generations of South Carolinians, maybe more," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach. "I’m ambivalent personally on whether to sell or not. However, I don’t know that it’s prudent to sell it. That’s our responsibility to make those hard decisions."