The S.C. House passed yet another proposal Wednesday aimed at lowering the electric bills of SCE&G customers, which have soared since the utility started work on a now-abandoned nuclear construction project.
Then, House members called a press conference to blast their counterparts in the state Senate for not going along with the plan.
“Every single day without action on these bills … costs the ratepayers $1.2 million,” said state Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston. “We owe it to the ratepayers to take action now.”
Hours later, Senate leaders responded they won’t buckle to pressure from the House, suggesting the press conference was a political stunt ahead the 2018 election season.
“This is serious, serious business that affects people’s lives, every single day,” said Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington. “It affects every citizen in South Carolina, and it’s not about a bunch of press conferences right before the political season.”
Citing legal concerns and its deliberative nature, the Senate pumped the brakes on the House’s first proposal to block, at least temporarily, SCE&G from continuing to charge its customers for the abandoned, $9 billion V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion project.
That plan passed the House 119-1 on Jan. 31 but now is languishing in a Senate committee. Since then, House members noted Wednesday, SCE&G customers have paid about $42 million in higher power bills due to the failed Fairfield County nuclear project.
The Senate also hasn’t taken up three other House-passed proposals — to revamp the state boards and agencies that oversaw the construction project, which SCE&G and the state-owned Santee Cooper utility quit last July after years of cost overruns and construction delays.
The Senate, however, did pass a proposal that seeks to buy legislators more time – until December – to sort through their legal options and come up with a solution for S.C. power customers who stand to pay billions of dollars more for the failed project.
The House revised that proposal to add language that would lower SCE&G’s power bills – by about 18 percent, money that now goes to pay for the defunct nuclear project – until that solution is found.
“We will take their dates if they will accept our experimental rate,” said S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.
The revised proposal, which passed the House 107-1 Wednesday, could force the full Senate to debate the idea of lowering the power bills of SCE&G customers. The SCANA subsidiary has charged its customers $2 billion for the nuclear project already.
S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster chimed in Wednesday, saying lawmakers should not allow utilities to charge power customers for a scuttled project.
“The South Carolina Senate has an opportunity to concur with the House's proposal that would stop these payments, and I'm proud to join Speaker Lucas and members of the House in urging them to do that immediately,” the Richland Republican said in a statement.
State Rep. Micah Caskey, R-Lexington, told visitors watching the House Wednesday, “What is happening right now is that you have been cheated.”
State Rep. Russell Ott, D-Calhoun, noted SCE&G still makes a profit from its monthly charges to customers for the project. Also, the troubled utility announced last month it would pay $87.5 million in dividends to its shareholders. “That’s not right, folks,” he said.
Senate leaders say they aren’t happy with the situation either. But they also don’t want to pass a law that would not survive an inevitable court challenge from SCE&G.
“What we don’t want to do is to pass something and tell people they’re not going to have to pay anymore, and have a court decide the next day that what we’ve done is improper, and then they get stuck with these rates even longer,” said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield. “We’ve got to do it the right way.”
The House’s press conference is part of an old strategy.
Last year, as the Senate took its time on a House proposal to raise the state’s gas tax to pay for road repairs, House Speaker Lucas called a press conference and demanded the upper chamber “pass the damn bill.”
Wednesday, Lucas was flanked by dozens of House members from both parties, who took turns praising the House’s leadership and jabbing the Senate’s inaction.
S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, said his constituents frequently ask him what the Legislature is going to do about the nuclear debacle. “Well, the House has acted. ... What we want, what we demand is that the Senate simply do something.”
“I am embarrassed to have to be here today,” Caskey said, “because our friends in the Senate across the hall refuse to act.”
Those comments won’t carry much weight in the Senate, Massey said.
“I, frankly, don’t care what they say,” Massey said. “I don’t care about the gamesmanship all that much. I’m really more interested in trying to solve the problem. If they want to go on a temper tantrum, they can do that.”
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