The S.C. House is done thinking about what percentage to cut from SCE&G's highest-in-the-region electric rates.
Instead, the State House's lower chamber now wants to focus on the amount of money — possibly some $300 million — the Legislature hopes to make SCE&G repay its customers after the Cayce-based utility and state-owned Santee Cooper botched a decade-long, $9 billion nuclear plant construction project.
The idea to force rebates from SCE&G was unveiled Wednesday as House and Senate negotiators met a third time to debate how deeply to cut SCE&G's power bills. Those bills were increased nine times to bankroll the failed V.C. Summer Nuclear Station expansion.
With a month left before the Legislature's deadline to pass a bill, negotiators adjourned Wednesday with no agreement. Senators were skeptical Wednesday that the House's plan could withstand an inevitable court challenge from SCE&G.
House members acknowledged their proposal was a bit outside the box.
"We're trying to get to a rebate for the ratepayer," said state Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Richland. "If we've got to go to Timbuktu to get it, so be it."
The House plan essentially would force SCE&G's parent company, SCANA, to direct most of its quarterly dividend payments to SCE&G customers instead of company shareholders. SCANA paid $350 million in dividends last year.
The new House proposal attempts to resolve a deadlock between the House and Senate over how deeply to cut SCE&G's electric rates.
The House has pushed to remove the entire 18-percent portion of SCE&G power bills that currently is earmarked for the nuclear project — about $27 a month for the typical customer. But the Senate has said it only is comfortable cutting SCE&G's rates by 13 percent, the amount that can be safely cut without threatening the utility with bankruptcy and strengthening its expected lawsuit against the Legislature.
The House plan would accept the Senate's 13-percent rate cut. But it would push the effective starting date for that rate cut back to Aug. 1, 2017, the day after SCE&G and Santee Cooper said they would abandon efforts to build two new nuclear reactors in Fairfield County.
That retroactive cut would force SCE&G to issue rebates to its customers. The cuts would remain in effect until December, when the S.C. Public Service Commission is scheduled to re-set SCE&G's rates and approve — or reject — Dominion Energy's proposed buyout of SCANA.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, questioned the constitutionality of the House's retroactive proposal.
“I have never seen a law fashioned in similar vein to a pleading," the Conway attorney said. " 'We want this, but, in the alternative, we’ll take that.' This is a beautiful prayer, right here.”
Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, also was skeptical of the bill's chances in court.
"I think you'd get clobbered."