COLUMBIA — The S.C. Senate sued Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday, arguing he illegally appointed former Attorney General Charlie Condon to lead the board that oversees South Carolina's state-owned utility.
But McMaster countered the "law is clearly on the side of the appointment," and affirmed Condon will lead Santee Cooper's next meeting later this month.
The governor contends the role can't remain vacant, and that he's trying to bring transparency to the board.
Condon, who is unconnected to any previous decisions leading to the debacle, will provide the needed impartiality and upset the status quo, McMaster said.
The powerplay lawsuit, which pits the Republican-controlled Senate against a Republican governor, comes amid the continuing fallout over the multi-billion-dollar abandoned nuclear power project in Fairfield County. McMaster appointed Condon last month as interim chairman of Santee Cooper's board after the Senate failed to confirm the governor's pick before the Legislature adjourned in June.
Senators say McMaster overstepped his authority. The suit asks the state Supreme Court to take the case directly and settle the question quickly.
Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, who filed the suit on the Senate's behalf, stressed the legal action is not personal but rather "about ensuring the rule of law and that the South Carolina Constitution and her laws are not violated."
The lawsuit was filed just minutes before the first meeting of a panel the Legislature created to consider the utility's fate after it racked up $4 billion in debt on the project abandoned a year ago.
McMaster, who has advocated selling the state's only government-owned utility — or at least some of its assets — appointed himself to the study panel rather than a representative.
The panel chose Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and Sen. Paul Campbell, R-Goose Creek, as co-chairs.
McMaster urged legislators to reach a decision quickly on Santee Cooper's future. The panel hopes to make recommendations for legislators to consider next year. Under state law, only the Legislature can approve selling any parts of the utility.
"Sometimes a decision is hard but if you have the facts, you can make the decision," McMaster said. "We have to understand this is an exercise in fact-finding, impartiality, and transparency. ... We have to move forward quickly and deliberately."
Santee Cooper was the minority partner in the project customers have been funding through their electricity bills since 2009.
On Monday, a federal judge gave customers of South Carolina Electric & Gas — the majority owner — some pocketbook relief by allowing the temporary rate cuts the Legislature passed in June to take effect. The ruling was a major victory for the Legislature, which spent the bulk of this year's session debating what to do, knowing SCE&G would sue regardless.
Eighteen percent of SCE&G customers' electricity bills have gone toward the abandoned reactors.
The ruling means bills will drop by 15 percent, saving its 700,000 customers $22 monthly on average, starting this month and continuing through at least December. Customers will also be credited for that amount paid on April through July bills.
McMaster contends selling Moncks Corner-based Santee Cooper could be the only way to provide relief to its customers.
"We want to analyze very carefully the exact situation and determine what would be the best thing to do," he told reporters last week about the Santee Cooper study panel.
The investors who have lent the utility more than $4 billion through bonds for the abandoned reactors "expect to get paid, and it may be the only way to accomplish that is through a sell," he said. "It looks to me that’s the only way to get out of the hole we’re in and continue to provide power without raising rates on customers."
But he stopped short Tuesday of calling for a sale.
"My hope is the facts will make it a clear choice, whatever that choice is," he said.
The V.C. Summer expansion project accounts for about half of Santee Cooper's debt. The utility faces its own lawsuit from its largest customers — South Carolina's 20 electric cooperatives, which want to stop the public utility from continuing to charge for the reactors.
McMaster nominated Condon, a long-time ally, for the job heading Santee Cooper in March, but the legislative session ended in May without Condon's confirmation clearing the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senators didn’t take it up at all during June’s two-day special session.
Their lack of action wasn't a green light for the governor, senators argue.
"While we can understand the governor’s frustration at the lack of consent for Mr. Condon, we cannot allow the end to justify any means — particularly when the means would upend the constitutional and statutory process," Leatherman, R-Florence, said in a release.
The utility's last chairman, Leighton Lord, resigned last December amid a public feud with McMaster over the abandoned project.