A state agency that oversaw South Carolina’s nuclear fiasco soon could get an overhaul.
The S.C. House Tuesday passed a proposal that would strengthen the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff and add a new state consumer advocate to help South Carolinians fight utilities’ efforts to raise their power bills.
The bill is the first of the Legislature’s nuclear proposals to pass one chamber at the State House. A handful of other bills are expected to follow, all aimed at cleaning up the financial, legal and regulatory mess exposed when two S.C. utilities abandoned a $9 billion nuclear reactor construction project last July.
“There wasn’t any real advocacy on behalf of the public interest and the ratepayer” in the past, said state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, one of 38 sponsors of the Regulatory Staff proposal.
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In a statement, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said the bill strengthens Regulatory Staff and prevents S.C. power customers “from experiencing future unfounded and deceitful utility rate hikes.”
Lucas called on the state Senate, which proudly calls itself “the deliberative body,” to pass the House’s bills when they receive them.
SCE&G’s 700,000 power customers, many in Columbia and Charleston, have paid, on average, roughly $1,400 each in higher power bills for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project, which the utility abandoned last year after a decade of effort and nine rate hikes.
Regulatory Staff did not oppose any of the nine rate hikes requested by SCE&G for the Summer expansion. Lawmakers investigating the debacle last fall concluded that was partly because of the agency’s conflicting mission – written into state law by legislators who created the agency in 2004.
That mission requires Regulatory Staff to look out both for power customers and for the utilities who want to charge them more. The proposal that passed the House Tuesday would eliminate Regulatory Staff’s obligation to protect utilities’ finances.
It also would give Regulatory Staff and the new consumer advocate the power to subpoena testimony and documents from utilities. That is necessary, House members have said, because it became evident SCANA had withheld important information from the public and state regulators about the Summer project’s problems.
That includes the Bechtel Corp. report, a long secret document – it surfaced only last September – that diagnosed critical problems at the construction site in February 2016.
“What we are going to have is a beefed up agency, an agency that truly failed on this, in my opinion, perhaps because they were misled,” said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland.
The House passed the proposal 114-1. The opponent – state Rep. Jonathon Hill, R-Anderson – said he wants to get rid of Regulatory Staff altogether.
A spokesman for Regulatory Staff said the agency had no comment on the House’s proposal. The bill would put the consumer advocate into the S.C. Attorney General’s office.
After a late change Tuesday, the bill also would prohibit the state attorney general from accepting campaign contributions from utilities that the consumer advocate would oppose in rate-hike hearings.
“I don’t want to have an attorney general who has received campaign contributions from someone, that may turn a blind eye to this area of protecting the ratepayers,” said state Rep. Gary Clary, the Pickens Republican who suggested that tweak to the proposal.