STATE LEGISLATORS were clamoring to come back to Columbia for a special session to “fix” the nuclear debacle before they even had time to fully understand what had just happened — much less have a clue about how to deal with it effectively. Chalk that up to the human compulsion to do something … anything … now … even if it’s wrong.
The thing is, it’s often wrong.
In this case, the danger of a rush to action is two-fold.
First, lawmakers could actually make matters worse. You know, unintended consequences and all that. Just to pick an example — and this might be the least of anybody’s worries right now, but it’s worth considering: A made-in-haste reaction might so cripple SCE&G that it gets bought by an out-of-state utility. Poof: One less corporate headquarters, and thousands fewer jobs, in South Carolina. Poof: One less major institution that has even the slightest interest about what anyone in South Carolina thinks or wants.
And if you doubt that the Legislature could pass a utilities bill without realizing all of its ramifications, look no further than the Base Load Review Act of 2007, which passed with a total of six legislators voting “no.”
That’s the law that made it easier for SCE&G to charge customers during construction of two nuclear reactors in Fairfield County. SCE&G customers already have paid $1.4 billion for them, and SCE&G wants to charge us at least $2 billion more.
I’m certain that more than six legislators would have voted “no” if they had realized that the bill guaranteed SCE&G annual rate increases during construction even if critics could prove that its subcontractors were squandering money. I’m sure more than six legislators would have voted “no” if they had realized that the bill guaranteed SCE&G a profit — yes a profit, in this case potentially at a rate of 10.25 percent per year — on the money it invested.
Even if legislators all agreed on what to do about this — and there will be competing interests, some of which will hide their interests — the danger of error is immense. That will still be true in January, but by then legislators will have had more than five months to get smarter about the intricacies of the law and have smarter ideas about what to do.
The opposite and equal danger is that legislators could fail to make things better. Miss the biggest problem. Or pass a “fix” that doesn’t actually fix anything. But declare that they had done what needed to be done. Once they realized they had not done what needed to be done, it would be nearly impossible to try again. (I know: That makes no sense. But that’s the way things work at the State House.)
Still, despite the risks, there might be one legitimate reason for lawmakers to come back to town, for an oh-so-brief special session: to stop time.
Not literally of course — although the story goes that the Senate used to believe it was capable of not only stopping time but turning it back. That it set the clock in the Senate chamber back in the belief that this would allow it to meet a deadline. Senators, after all, believe they can do anything by unanimous consent.
Of course even unanimous consent of both the House and the Senate wouldn’t empower them to turn the clock back five years, to the moment before SCE&G broke ground on what would become our state’s nuclear disaster.
The game legislators can play with time, and should, is to toll the law that requires the Public Service Commission to rule within six months on SCE&G’s petition to abandon the project. That petition outlines SCE&G’s plans to continue charging us for the unfinished reactors. Suspending the law would reduce the chance that regulators will make matters worse.
The danger of the deadline became apparent to me as Dukes Scott, executive director of the Office of Regulatory Staff, was talking about the difficulties his staff is having just figuring out how to calculate what types of relief the law allows SCE&G, much less how to assess (as is his job) the legitimacy of the specific dollar requests. As we were talking, three of his top officials inadvertently illustrated his point, as they huddled over a dog-eared copy of the Base Load Review Act, looking for a provision that two of them thought it included and one did not. Granted, this was just a week after SCE&G said it was shuttering the project, but these are the people we rely on to understand that law better than anyone else.
I can’t say for sure whether giving a few more months to the Public Service Commission, and the Office of Regulatory Staff, would hurt SCE&G, or the ratepayers, although my guess is that it’s SCE&G that would benefit from a decision that isn’t fully thought out. But that shouldn’t matter. It’s the sensible thing to do, to improve the chance that we’ll get the right decision. That six-month deadline was created for routine petitions — to raise rates, for example, or to change the projected cost of a project. I doubt anyone anticipated that it would actually be used for something so huge and, yes, complicated, as a petition to abandon a $20 billion project.
Stopping the clock is actually the goal of many in the special-session crowd, but they want to prevent the next rate increase, which the law anticipates SCE&G imposing annually. Playing with the rules of the game is one of those changes that could have significant unintended consequences; besides, another rate increase can’t take place until five months after SCE&G files for one, and the earliest it could file is Sept. 1 — which means lawmakers could still deal with it in January.
But there is one more clock-stoppage maneuver lawmakers might want to consider if they’re back in town. Filing closed Friday for three of the seven seats on the Public Service Commission, which the Legislature is tentatively scheduled to vote on at the end of January.
I’m not certain how much discretion the PSC has had over this whole mess, but I am certain of this: The whole world of utility regulation in South Carolina has been upended in the past two weeks. Lawmakers need to extend that filing period so candidates can file for those seats with that whole new world in mind.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.