Cindi Ross Scoppe

You don’t sell Santee Cooper because it’s a rogue agency. You do this instead

Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.

Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.
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Gov. Henry McMaster slams Santee Cooper for its nuclear fiasco and its lobbying scandal.

IF YOUR 17-year-old keeps sneaking out in the middle of the night and taking your sports car for joyrides, the solution isn’t to sell the car — although that might feel like the easiest option. The solution is to lock away the keys and discipline your 17-year-old.

If your 5-year-old won’t stop sassing you, the solution isn’t to put her up for adoption. The solution is to impose some sort of discipline on the child.

If a state agency looks out for the interests of its managers at the expense of the state, the solution isn’t to privatize the state agency. The solution is to get rid of those managers and otherwise impose some discipline on the state agency. Some accountability.

Last week, Gov. Henry McMaster was shocked — shocked — to learn that Santee Cooper’s lobbyists had been working to undermine his efforts to sell the state-owned utility. As The State’sAvery Wilks reported, emails the utility turned over to the governor showed the lobbyists working to convince lawmakers of the utility’s value to the state and to recruit legislators to fight any efforts to unload it.

Indeed, it’s hard to believe that there was any other reason that two of the best-connected lobbyists at the State House — Dwight Drake and Fred Allen — were added to the utility’s lobbying team in January. After all, if the agency truly just wanted to answer questions from legislators, you’d think it would rely on employees, who would be more familiar with the situation.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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SC nuclear debacle, by the numbers

SC nuclear debacle: a timeline

Did South Carolina’s own ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law make the nuclear fiasco worse?

There are 3 ways to cut Santee Cooper customers’ bills; 2 of them are worth exploring

Still want to run government like a business? That’s insane

Santee Cooper’s role in SC nuclear debacle looks worse by the day

Does anyone at Santee Cooper remember who Santee Cooper works for?

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The governor called the utility “a rogue agency,” described it as “a bureaucracy that is operating on its own” and declared “This must end.”

But the surprise isn’t that Santee Cooper’s lobbyists would be trying to undermine the governor’s efforts. After all, Santee Cooper officials don’t want to lose their power to run the agency. And frankly, the lobbyists probably don’t want to lose that sweet gig.

The surprise is that the governor would have expected any other type of behavior. After all, Santee Cooper’s CEO answers to the board, and the board, though appointed by the governor, most assuredly does not answer to the governor.

As I read about the lobbying campaign, I got flashbacks to 1993, when the Legislature spent the year deciding which state agencies to merge, which to put under the direct control of the governor and which to keep as independent fiefdoms, answering to part-time boards whose members could not be removed unless they were indicted for serious crimes. Seventy-five agencies were consolidated into 14, 11 of which reported to the governor. The agencies that were left alone were the ones whose leaders and lobbyists did the best job of working legislators.

The biggest problem with Santee Cooper is that it is an independent fiefdom — and to a far greater extent than all of those others. Its leaders answer to no one. And when it joined with SCE&G to build two new nuclear reactors, that cost us all.

It is simply unfathomable that, if the Santee Cooper board members had known that the governor could remove them for any or no reason, they would have kept quiet and kept spending billions of dollars as evidence mounted that SCE&G was not providing even the most basic oversight, and the project spun out of control. But the board members did sit quietly, keeping their concerns to themselves, knowing very well that neither the governor nor anyone else could do anything about it. And it’s worth noting that neither the governor nor anyone else has even proposed legislation to make the board work for him. Or anyone else.

Gov. McMaster wasn’t able to get rid of board chairman Leighton Lord after Mr. Lord made lousy decisions or kept quiet about the problems. State law says a governor may only remove Santee Cooper board members if they fail to show up for work or commit one of a handful of infractions that can lead to criminal prosecution. Mr. Lord only resigned after the governor started assembling a legal case that Mr. Lord failed to turn over documents the governor requested — which is one of those reasons the governor can act. State law even prohibits the governor from asking board members to resign. There are no provisions in state law for anyone else to remove them either.

I do not know that selling Santee Cooper is a bad idea. I know the agency’s behavior has been unacceptable. I know I wouldn’t create a government-owned utility today. But we’re not talking about whether to create a state-owned utility. We’re talking about whether it’s a good idea to offload the one we have. What we should be talking about is whether selling that utility can result in customers paying less for their electricity in the long-run than if the agency remains a state agency.

A recent report from a pro-privatization advocacy group concluded that ratepayers would be much better off if the utility is sold, and I’ll take a closer look at that report in a subsequent column. But I’m not prepared to make a decision based on that report, because it wasn’t conducted by experts who are neutral as to the conclusion. And on a topic this important, worth this many billions of dollars, we need neutral experts to analyze the numbers.

Meantime, the Legislature needs to rein in this rogue agency, by passing a simple law that says the governor can remove his appointees for any reason or no reason at all.

More information

Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:

Could the fate of the nuclear surcharge come down to a 3.5 x 7 piece of paper?

Ratepayers sued the state, and the attorney general’s office is helping them

3 numbers you need to know about SCE&G, Dominion and our energy future

You’re not going to stop paying nuclear surcharge, even if House bill becomes law

Legislators’ micromanagement limits fix to regulatory system behind nuclear debacle

Why legislators shouldn’t be allowed to accept donations, jobs from utilities

Don’t be so sure SCE&G can pay for nuclear debacle without going bankrupt

What else we learned from that SCE&G bankruptcy report

Three ways the Dominion-SCE&G deal could fall apart

How awful would it really be if SCE&G went bankrupt?

4 changes the Legislature needs to make after the $9 billion nuclear debacle

Is this the best deal SCE&G customers can get? Why finding out could cost us

Buying the benefit of the doubt: How donations secured SCE&G the means to squander billions.

Kapow! SCE&G punches back at Santee Cooper criticisms

How ‘waste not, want not’ became ‘spend more, profit more’

SCE&G nuclear fiasco: It’s complicated. Here are some explanations.

SCE&G law could cost you more than you imagine

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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