LET’S SEE IF I’ve got this straight:
The Legislature passes a law in 2004 creating the Office of Regulatory Staff, to replace the state consumer advocate in representing the interests of the public when regulated utilities ask for permission from the Public Service Commission to raise rates or do other expensive things — like, say, building a $10 billion pair of nuclear reactors. Except it’s not just supposed to represent the interests of the public. It’s also supposed to balance the interest of ratepayers against the “preservation of the financial integrity of the state’s public utilities.”
Yes, the utilities, which have always been pretty good at preserving their own financial integrity.
And Dukes Scott, a respected career utilities regulator who had served as a PSC commissioner and an administrative law judge, is hired to run the agency.
Three years later, the Legislature passes the Base Load Review Act, which makes it much easier for utilities to charge ratepayers during construction of nuclear plants and guarantees that utilities can turn a profit even on plants they fail to complete. A law that makes it almost impossible for regulators to turn down utilities’ nuclear-reactor-related requests.
So SCE&G raises our rates nine times, and charges us $1.4 billion to cover interest payments during construction of two reactors it was building along with Santee Cooper. And it keeps asking permission to extend the time line and increase the budget, and the PSC keeps approving those changes. In many cases, Mr. Scott had already raised questions about cost projections, and SCE&G had backed down from them, before the request went to the PSC.
At one point, Mr. Scott steps in and negotiates a settlement that requires prime contractor Westinghouse to finish building the reactors at a set price and makes SCANA shareholders — instead of ratepayers — pay for any more cost overruns. Part of that agreement is in doubt now that Westinghouse has filed for bankruptcy, but Mr. Scott’s settlement is far better than anything SCE&G or Santee Cooper had been able to come up with. It gave us the only semblance of assurance anyone had ever been able to give us that the costs wouldn’t keep rising, ever more.
Then last month, the utilities announced that they were abandoning the project. SCANA filed paperwork to charge its ratepayers up to $4.9 billion more, to recoup the money it had already plowed into the plant. Santee Cooper said it wouldn’t raise rates yet, but it also has borrowed billions to pay for construction, and will have to get that money back sometime. From the only place it can get it: ratepayers.
And against this backdrop, House Speaker Jay Lucas wants Dukes Scott to resign?
The one person in South Carolina who has done anything to rein in the cost of this disaster? He’s the one who should resign?
Not Lonnie Carter, the Santee Cooper president who knew the project was in trouble years ago? Not the Santee Cooper board, which kept holding secret meetings about the project but kept raising rates and never moved to get the state-owned utility out until last month?
Not the Public Service Commissioners, who approved every request that SCE&G brought to it? Fourteen in all, as I recall.
Not SCANA CEO Kevin Marsh? Or his executive team? Or his board of directors?
Every one of those people should go before Dukes Scott goes.
Granted, SCANA was serving its stockholders quite well, thanks to that 2007 law that meant the more the utility spent, the more profits it made. And granted that the PSC commissioners didn’t have a lot of discretion in some cases or any in others.
Maybe at some point it’ll turn out that Mr. Scott should go. But shouldn’t all of those people be higher than Dukes Scott on the “heads must must roll, starting with yours” list? For that matter, shouldn’t every legislator who voted for that 2007 law be higher on that list than Dukes Scott? Shouldn’t, for that matter, every legislator who voted for that 2004 law that forced Mr. Scott to look out for the interests of the utilities be higher on that list than Dukes Scott?
In a word, yes. To all of those questions. Yes. Every one of those people should go before Dukes Scott goes.
Fortunately, Gov. Henry McMaster will have none of this foolishness. I’m told that when Mr. Scott went to the governor’s office Wednesday to tell him about the speaker’s request, the governor said he would not accept a resignation if it were offered. He needs Mr. Scott, he told him.
The only way to do that is to change the law that prevents Mr. Scott from putting the interests of the ratepayers ahead of the interests of regulated utilities.
The governor’s spokesman said the call for Mr. Scott to resign was “completely unwarranted.” Mr. McMaster has been looking for another utility to either buy Santee Cooper’s share in the project or buy Santee Cooper, and Mr. Scott “is an invaluable member of a team that has met with some of the largest utilities in the world, and these potential buyers must be confident that South Carolina has the regulatory stability and institutional credibility necessary to justify their investment.”
Mr. Lucas, usually one of the most level-headed members of our Legislature, said Wednesday that “New leadership in my opinion is necessary to assure South Carolina ratepayers that the Office of Regulatory Staff holds their interests in the highest regard.”
That sounds nice, but the fact is that changing the director won’t do a thing to elevate ratepayers’ interests. The only way to do that is to change the law that actually prevents Mr. Scott from putting the interests of the ratepayers ahead of the interests of regulated utilities.
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.