A House panel on Wednesday unanimously OK’d a proposal to — for the first time — give the state’s utility watchdog oversight over South Carolina’s 20 electric cooperatives.
But at least one lawmaker promised to oppose the bill if it reaches the House floor for a vote.
The bill, H. 3145, would allow the Office of Regulatory Staff to audit the little-known co-ops and raise red flags if one of the small utilities is breaking state law or misspending money. The agency would take major disputes with a co-op to the S.C. Public Service Commission for a ruling.
The proposal stems from The State’s reporting last May that part-time board members of the St. Matthews-based Tri-County Electric Cooperative had enriched themselves with high pay, expensive benefits and inappropriate perks.
Those costs were charged to the co-op’s rural customers-owners, who were paying some of the highest electric rates in the state. Three months later, the co-op’s customers rose up and overthrew Tri-County’s entire board in a historic vote.
The episode brought attention to South Carolina’s 20 little-known and scantly regulated co-ops, whose leaders also have higher pay and more expensive benefits than their co-op counterparts across the country.
The co-op reform bill was filed by state Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun Democrat who represents many of Tri-County’s 13,600 customers. It has the support of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. The co-ops’ statewide trade association worked with Ott for months on the bill.
However, the bill will face some opposition if it reaches the House floor.
State Rep. Wendy Brawley, a Lower Richland Democrat who also represents many Tri-County customers, said statewide legislation isn’t always the best solution to local problems.
She noted Tri-County Electric’s customers worked together to fix their co-op’s problems.
“I do not support giving the PSC or ORS any authority over co-ops,” she said. “The co-ops are best served when co-op members are empowered by the bylaws they enact.”
Ott said his proposal wouldn’t take any power from co-op customers. It simply will empower a watchdog to have their backs, he said.
The bill also adds new ethics and transparency rules for electric co-ops, which traditionally have seen little scrutiny.
“There is no perfect solution to bad actors acting badly,” said John Frick, a lobbyist for the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. “What we’ve tried to do is bring sunlight to the process, bring accountability to the process.”