SCE&G CRITICS say campaign donations explain why the Legislature passed the law that invited SCE&G to squander ratepayers’ money on the construction of two now-abandoned nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer station in Jenkinsville.
That might be true — but not in the way they imply.
With rare exceptions, campaign donations don’t buy votes. (And if those exceptions are discovered, they result in prison time.)
With those same exceptions, donations don’t convince legislators to change their core positions — don’t make anti-tax crusaders suddenly embrace a massive tax hike, don’t make gun opponents suddenly support open-carry laws.
Politicians say the only thing donations buy is access — and some politicians won’t even admit to that any more.
But donations do buy something extremely valuable. They buy trust. They buy the benefit of the doubt.
And this is probably the most important commodity in a legislative body.
There’s no way a legislator can read all the bills that are introduced — 2,126 in the 2017 legislative session — much less understand all the implications of them all. So legislators need people they can trust to tell them what a bill does and doesn’t do — and what parts of it are likely to get them into trouble if they support it.
Trust is particularly important when the legislation is as complicated as the 2007 Baseload Review Act, which was sold as a way to jump-start a nuclear renaissance by allowing utilities to charge customers up front for the cost of a multi-billion-dollar construction project.
When a generous campaign donor asks legislators to support a really complicated bill that he says will do things that the legislators want to do, the typical legislator responds this way: I know this person. He has good judgment and good motives. So I don’t need to ask tough questions and double-check everything he says. I don’t entirely understand the bill — in fact, I didn’t even read the whole thing, because it’s really complicated, and I’m really busy — but he told me what he’s trying to accomplish with it, and I want to accomplish that too. Certainly this good person would warn me if the bill did other things that weren’t so good.
It’s similar to the way judges are influenced by the lawyer-legislators who vote for them: They don’t set out to rule in favor of the legislators who appear before them in the courtroom. But in close calls, it’s just human nature to say: Certainly I can trust this fine person. He has such good judgment. After all, he did vote for ME.
We all know now that in addition to making it easier for utilities to charge customers for the nuclear reactors during construction, the Baseload Review Act flipped around the burden of proof, making it almost impossible for opponents or even regulators to stop them from raising rates, no matter how much the expenses rose, no matter how many problems the project encountered. We all know now that the bill allowed utilities to collect from ratepayers a hefty profit on their investment, even if they never completed the reactors.
At the time, though, few legislators knew any of that, because to realize everything the bill did would require a sophisticated understanding of utilities law as well as engineering and construction and, of course, nuclear engineering.
There are plenty of people who are smart enough to figure out that the bill did a lot more than its supporters said it did — that it could easily create perverse incentives to waste money on a multi-billion-dollar project, that it probably violated the state constitution’s surprisingly strong consumer-protection provisions.
But nuclear opponents, who normally would have studied such legislation and noticed those problems, were busy fighting other nuclear battles and missed the significance of the bill. And legislators didn’t ask neutral experts to vet the legislation, because the lack of opposition from the natural opponents created a false impression that there were no problems with it — and because the primary supporter of the bill was the SCANA Corp.
SCANA is one of the biggest political players in South Carolina and has been since forever. It employes a huge stable of lobbyists, who are paid well to build and maintain those individual trusting relationships with legislators, by being likeable and accessible and knowledgeable. It supports all sorts of community projects and charitable causes in communities throughout the state that earn it tremendous goodwill. And of course it makes those campaign donations. The result is that it has managed to cultivate the trust and earn the benefit of the doubt from nearly every legislator.
So when it offers up a complicated bill that has a goal nearly everyone shares — wouldn’t it be cool if South Carolina could lead the nation’s nuclear renaissance? … and no one opposes it, except maybe a pedant or two who oppose practically everything and talk so much that you cease to hear them … and its supporters assure you there’s no downside to it … you believe them. And you pass their bill. Not because they have given so generously to your campaign account and you want to thank them for that, but because they’re just such good, trustworthy people.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.
Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful: