Politics & Government

SC Senate leaders want special session to block rate hikes after nuclear plant boondoggle

S.C. Senate leaders – Republican and Democratic – want a special session of the General Assembly called to block temporarily further electric rate hikes for S.C. residents.

However, the Republican speaker of the S.C. House said Friday that a special session could “lead to higher rates for consumers.”

Meanwhile, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office said Friday that it plans to investigate the failed multi-billion-dollar nuclear expansion project in Fairfield County.

The calls for lawmakers to return to Columbia come after the construction of two nuclear power reactors near Jenkinsville was abandoned earlier this week.

S.C. power customers are on the hook for the collapse, with some already seeing as many as nine rate hikes since 2007 to pay for the reactors. Future rate hikes also are being considered to pay costs of the abandoned project.

“We would like the opportunity to investigate this issue in order to ensure that all laws were complied with and all applicable procedures were followed,” Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote in a letter Friday, urging lawmakers to hold a special session. “Meanwhile, we trust that the Public Service Commission will delay any rate increase while our investigation is ongoing.”

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, want the General Assembly to return to pass a resolution that would prevent the Public Service Commission from approving further rate hikes until the Legislature returns to Columbia next January.

That would block either state-owned utility Santee Cooper or Cayce-based SCE&G, a shareholder-owned company, from charging customers more while lawmakers investigate what went wrong with the project.

“There has got to be some responsibility taken for what’s occurred here,” Setzler told The State newspaper. “It’s not the ratepayers’ responsibility. We’ve got to have some time to assess what this does to the state of South Carolina.”

The senators asked Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, to call lawmakers back to Columbia to pass that resolution before any further action can be taken on the nuclear project.

Passage of the resolution would require both the Senate and House to return to Columbia.

The Senate’s leader, Leatherman, told The State earlier Friday that he is considering a special session.

House Speaker Lucas called the idea “impulsive.”

“The impulsive legislative action contemplated by Senators Massey and Setzler could have unintended and negative consequences, and lead to higher rates for consumers,” Lucas said in a statement.

Lucas added that if a special session is in the best interests of S.C. taxpayers and ratepayers, he will call the House back into session.

State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland, said prohibiting the utilities from recovering their costs is a “myopic approach,” adding it “will undoubtedly harm customers of both SCE&G and Santee Cooper, prolong the problem by compounding interest and increase consumer risk.”

Premature action will limit any possibility of the utilities giving power customers back the money they already have paid toward the reactors, Finlay said in a letter to Lucas.

Neither of the utilities replied to requests for comment Friday.

The letter from Massey and Setzler referred to a joint Senate-House review committee that has announced plans for a public hearing later this month on the failed project.

“While we are confident the review committee will be thorough and act quickly, we are concerned that Santee Cooper and/or the Public Service Commission, at SCANA’s request, might increase power bills yet again before the review committee has completed its work,” Massey and Setzler wrote.

“We believe South Carolinians should have an opportunity to understand what has happened, and the General Assembly should have an opportunity to evaluate the facts, corporate responsibility, and the state’s energy policy, before the utilities seek additional increases.”

Setzler told The State he hopes the General Assembly will reconvene by mid-September.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

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