After a weeks-long scuffle with a powerful state lawmaker over $15 million, Santee Cooper has agreed to cough up the money to pay a high-powered consultant to study its own sale.
The state-owned utility’s board unanimously voted Wednesday to meet Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman’s demand for more money to hire an investment bank — or some other expert — that will help the state field and evaluate offers to purchase or take over the management of Santee Cooper.
Board members and new Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall took turns saying they are happy to help ensure South Carolina hires the best possible experts to advise lawmakers on a possible sale, even as one board member noted the money demand caught Santee Cooper off guard.
State lawmakers are considering offloading Santee Cooper after the 85-year-old power company lost $4 billion on the construction of two nuclear power reactors that were never finished. The 2 million South Carolinians who get the utility’s power face higher power bills for four decades as a result of the V.C. Summer project’s failure.
Lawmakers voted earlier this year to explore a possible sale but included only $5 million in the budget to hire a consultant, far less than the going rate for that expertise. Last month, Leatherman demanded Santee Cooper cover the difference.
But Santee Cooper challenged that demand because the General Assembly never explicitly discussed it or agreed to require that.
Asking Santee Cooper to pay for the consultant was never part of the public or private discussions surrounding that proposal, according to Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, and Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley.
“I was the one who had to sell this to the Senate, and I’m not going to get thrown under the bus for this,” Massey told The State. “This was not part of the deal. There were probably eight or 10 senators who were actively engaged in writing that resolution.”
Massey continued: “There was never any discussion about Santee Cooper or the co-ops having to pay for that. I don’t like the suggestion now that that was the plan and that it was underhanded not to tell them.”
Santee Cooper board member Stephen Mudge said Wednesday “it would have been nice” if the utility had known it would be asked for $15 million. “It’s a little disappointing that the $15 (million) was never discussed,” he said.
The board’s vote Wednesday gives the state Department of Administration the go-ahead to move forward with hiring a consultant.