SC lawmakers begin task of deciding whether to sell Santee Cooper

New Santee Cooper interim CEO Jim Brogdon discusses possible sale of the utility

New Santee Cooper interim CEO Jim Brogdon discusses possible sale of the utility.
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New Santee Cooper interim CEO Jim Brogdon discusses possible sale of the utility.

Selling Santee Cooper would be a Herculean task, but S.C. lawmakers Tuesday decided to take a swing at it.

A nine-member committee, including Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, agreed Tuesday to meet every other Wednesday between now and January to study the prospect of selling the state-owned utility.

That grueling schedule — state Rep. Russell Fry, R-Horry, for example, will drive six hours for each meeting — is another sign S.C. lawmakers seriously are considering the idea of selling the multibillion-dollar state agency after it racked up $4 billion in debt on a failed nuclear construction project.

During Tuesday’s 30-minute meeting, committee members agreed their ultimate recommendation to the General Assembly on whether to sell Santee Cooper massively would impact the utility’s 1,700 employees and the 2 million S.C. residents who depend on it for power.

They also agreed they must hire an outside consultant — perhaps a Wall Street-based investment bank — to assess Santee Cooper’s value and help guide their recommendation.

But, as the committee begins its work, that might be where the consensus ends.

For example, McMaster, a Richland Republican up for election in November, has wanted to sell Santee Cooper and offload its construction debt since last August, just days after the utility and Cayce-based SCE&G said they were abandoning the decadelong, $9 billion construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.

Meanwhile, Senate Transportation Committee chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, represents many of Santee Cooper’s employees, who live in his district. Earlier this year, Grooms gave an impassioned speech defending the embattled agency on the Senate floor.

Both said Tuesday they would keep an open mind and want to let the committee’s findings dictate its recommendation on whether to sell the utility.

But, after the meeting, McMaster told reporters he doubts there is a way for Santee Cooper to repay its $4 billion in nuclear construction debt without passing those costs along to its customers.

“That is a deep and heavy debt load to work a company’s way out of by instituting policies of ... efficiency and cutting back on things,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to do it. But maybe there’s a way.”

At Grooms’ request, the committee agreed Tuesday to consider in its final recommendation the economic impact of having Santee Cooper’s headquarters in Moncks Corner.

That is in Grooms’ district.

“That’s something no one has talked about, and that’s really something that’s part of the consideration,” Grooms said. “We spend a great deal of money in state incentives to try to attract corporate headquarters.”

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks