FOR A WHILE there, it looked like the biggest breakup since Prince Charles and Diana: The S.C. House, the most devoted of SCE&G’s many helpmates, voted by an extraordinary 64-33 Thursday to pass a bill that our embattled utility had worked tirelessly to sabotage.
But then the weekend came, and the SCE&G lobbyists turned on the charm, and one by one they wooed back their wandering representatives. And on Tuesday, the House reversed itself and voted 55-54 to kill the bill.
No, the House didn’t change its mind about rolling back the nuclear surcharge. As big a blow as that was to SCE&G, it was something legislators facing re-election this year really had no choice but to do after SCE&G parent SCANA abandoned the $9 billion nuclear construction project amidst monumental mismanagement — and kept charging customers $37 million a month to fund stockholders’ dividends.
What the House changed its mind about was its momentary refusal to let SCE&G, Duke Energy and the other regulated utilities continue to write the rules for our electric power grid. Specifically, the House had supported a solar-energy bill that the utilities worked all sorts of political machinations to kill.
There are two important lessons from Tuesday’s about-face.
The most obvious is that no one should be fooled into thinking that SCE&G is no longer one of the most powerful lobbying forces in our state. If not quite strong enough to write the rules for our power grid, at least strong enough to stop others from writing them.
The other lesson is that if you want to know where your legislators really stand on an issue, you’d better look at more than the final vote on a bill.
But let’s go back to Thursday and do this in order.
When the solar debate began, pro-utility legislators were winning close votes to push through the industry-written H.5045, which would force people who wanted to sell excess solar power to the utility to sell all of it, cut-rate, and buy all of the electricity they use from the utility, at full price.
But solar supporters pounded away at SCE&G’s trustworthiness. They reminded their colleagues that SCE&G had written the Base Load Review Act, which made it virtually impossible for regulators to reject the rate increases for the failing nuclear project. That SCE&G had jacked up those rates, while withholding vital information that regulators might have been able to use to stop the increases. That the main sponsor of H.5045, House Labor, Commerce and Industry Chairman Bill Sandifer, had carried SCE&G’s water for the Base Load Review Act.
After a couple of procedural motions left fence-sitters wondering if they could trust the legislators who were backing the bill, the utilities’ 51-50 advantage evaporated, and the House killed the so-called net-metering bill 61-39. From there, the House easily passed Rep. James Smith’s H.4421, which lifted a cap that’s about to make it prohibitively expensive to install new solar panels, by that 64-33 vote.
What is significant is that this vote was not about political ideology, although there were ideological arguments for the bill, from both the left and the right. Rather, the overwhelmingly Republican House had overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan bill because legislators no longer believed anything SCANA subsidiary SCE&G told them. As the House’s V.C. Summer investigative chairman GOP Rep. Peter McCoy explained at the time: “No one wants to talk or negotiate with them, based on what we’ve learned. The trust has been absolutely lost.”
H.4421 included a section to exempt rooftop solar panels from property taxes. And the S.C. Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to pass a property tax exemption. On Tuesday, when SCE&G supporters raised that point, the bill’s supporters argued that the exemption isn’t really an exemption because no counties tax solar panels. But it’s hard to ignore the word “exemption” in the bill, so the point was sustained.
If anyone had raised that point on Thursday, solar supporters would have been able to strip the exemption from the bill. But they forgot about that requirement; one is tempted to call that legislative malpractice, on the part of the supporters and the committee staff that spent months massaging the bill. Opponents waited until Tuesday to bring it up because 1) that gave the utilities the weekend to convince legislators to reverse positions and oppose the bill and 2) it’s nearly impossible to amend a bill on third reading.
Solar supporters tried a parliamentary maneuver that would have allowed them to remove the tax exemption by a simple majority, but the closest they could come was 54-55. Even after Rep. Smith reminded his colleagues that the solar bill would cost SCE&G less each year than it is charging customers each day for the nuclear energy they’ll never receive. Even after Rep. McCoy reminded them that he had called for state and federal criminal investigations (now underway) after he became convinced that SCE&G officials “deceived” and “lied” to his committee.
A handful of House members who voted with SCE&G on Tuesday hadn’t voted on Thursday. But six House members who strayed on Thursday returned to their normal roles as SCE&G supporters on Tuesday, coming through when the utility needed them most.
The turn-abouts don’t stop there: Once there was no longer any possibility of changing the bill so it required only a majority vote to pass, the House voted 61-44, far short of the 82 votes now needed, for third reading.
And here’s where that other lesson comes in: A total of seven of those House members who voted to pass the bill Tuesday had voted just a few minutes earlier to make it impossible for the bill to pass. That is, they voted pro-SCE&G when their votes were critical to the utility, but against the utility when the utility no longer needed their votes. You can see all those votes here.
I wish I could tell you that it was rare for legislators to pull this sleight of hand: voting the way their constituents want just minutes after casting crucial votes in the other direction. It is, in fact, something many legislators do. Routinely.
Here are some other pieces I’ve written about this that you might find helpful:
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.