Politics & Government

SC Senate candidates agree the best deal for ratepayers is if SCANA goes bankrupt

From left, moderator Earl Utsey with the South Meadowfield Neighborhood Association speaks at a debate between Republican Benjamin Dunn, center, and Democrat Dick Harpootlian at the Woodland Park Community Center.
From left, moderator Earl Utsey with the South Meadowfield Neighborhood Association speaks at a debate between Republican Benjamin Dunn, center, and Democrat Dick Harpootlian at the Woodland Park Community Center.

The two candidates running for a Columbia-area state Senate seat disagree on a lot, but there was one area Thursday where they agreed: The best move for S.C. ratepayers would be for SCANA to declare bankruptcy.

During a forum between Republican Benjamin Dunn and Democrat Dick Harpootlian, both candidates told residents at the Woodland Park Community Center that a managed bankruptcy of the troubled Cayce-based utility would allow electric rates to fall for customers of SCANA subsidiary SCE&G.

“We’re probably looking at having to choose the least bad option going forward,” Dunn said, noting recent reports the Base Load Review Act — the law that allowed SCE&G to increase rates to pay for a now-failed nuclear project — soon could be ruled unconstitutional.

If that happens, Dunn said potential SCANA buyer Dominion Energy could walk away from its planned buyout. The priority of S.C. legislators then should be to push the cost of the failed V.C. Summer expansion project onto SCANA’s shareholders, rather than its customers.

“Right now, I think some kind of bankruptcy might be the best deal for the ratepayers,” said Dunn, a Ballentine attorney.

Harpootlian agreed.

The Columbia lawyer and former chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party currently is pursuing a lawsuit against SCANA’s board of on behalf of ratepayers.

“The solution is bankruptcy,” he said. “Once the BLRA is declared unconstitutional, Dominion will back away, and bankruptcy will be the only option.”

Harpootlian said bankruptcy would be “terrible” for SCANA’s stockholders and bond investors. “But,” he added, “it would discharge all that (nuclear debt) mess and allow rates to go down dramatically.”

It was a rare moment of agreement between the two candidates in what has been a hotly contested race for an open Senate seat. In recent weeks, the race between the two has taken to the airwaves — and the courthouse.

Earlier this month, Harpootlian went to court to stop the Senate Republican Caucus from paying for ads comparing him to democratic socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, arguing the caucus had breached legal spending limits. A Circuit Court judge agreed, blocking the Senate GOP from buying any more ads. However, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, filed an appeal of that ruling Monday.

On Tuesday, Dunn took his own stab at getting ads targeting him off the air. His campaign sent a letter to four Columbia TV stations asking them to stop airing ads from the Harpoootlian campaign that the Republican says falsely portray him as beholden to SCE&G, one of the donors to the Republican caucus that paid for the now-barred anti-Harpootlian ads.

But Tuesday’s forum offered moments of civility.

Despite what Harpootlian called “slappy and nasty” ads, the Democrat told the crowd that Dunn has been a “gentleman” and “great guy” on the campaign trail.

Dunn agreed, saying his opponent has been “great to deal with.”

The winner will fill the seat long held by Republican state Sen. John Courson, who resigned in June after pleading guilty to misuse of office as part of the State House corruption probe.

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