THIS IS ONE of those be careful what you wish for columns. What I wish is that the Legislature — by which I mean the Senate — would acknowledge that dealing with SCE&G’s nuclear surcharge is nowhere near the most significant change needed in the wake of South Carolina’s largest-ever business disaster. I also wish it would make those more important changes.
Yes, it is ridiculously unfair for SCE&G customers to continue paying $1.2 million every day for abandoned nuclear reactors, particularly since SCANA continues shoveling a nearly equal amount of money into shareholders’ pockets in quarterly dividends.
But the fact is that a court almost certainly is going to reduce the surcharge on our power bills whether the Legislature acts or not. And in fact, a court will get the last say on the complicated constitutional issues at play, which makes legislative action feel not precisely essential.
What will not get resolved without legislative action are the underlying problems that allowed SCANA and state-owned Santee Cooper to spend $10 billion on the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project — much of it after disturbing questions were raised about the project and their own management capabilities.
As I explained in January, this whole mess is a microcosm of what is broken about our state government: Legislators pass a law they don’t understand, because people they trust — who happen to provide lots of campaign donations to legislators — promise the law does something the Legislature wants. Because of the Legislature’s refusal to empower anyone but itself to do anything important, the people who are supposed to make sure the law works either aren’t allowed to do the jobs they need to do or can’t be held accountable for their failures, or both.
The five most important reforms lawmakers needed to make in January remain the five most important reforms they need to make three months later, as we begin the final six days of the 2018 legislative session:
▪ Make the Office of Regulatory Staff an actual consumer protection agency. A 2004 law required the agency to protect consumers as well as economic development and “the financial integrity of the state’s public utilities.” It’s fine to ask the Public Service Commission to balance those three interests. But the Office of Regulatory Staff was created to replace the old Department of Consumer Affairs, and its mandate should be to fulfill that role.
▪ Subject state-owned Santee Cooper to the same regulations as SCE&G and other utilities. Under current law, Santee Cooper can raise rates, join in risky partnerships and embark on new construction with only the approval of its board of directors, who are insulated from accountability for their decisions. Its rates and its construction plans should require approval by the Public Service Commission.
▪ Let the governor, who appoints Santee Cooper board members, remove them if he thinks they’ve made bad decisions. That seems obvious, particularly considering how much Santee Cooper and SCE&G customers could end up paying because of Santee Cooper’s bad decisions. But under the current law, board members can’t be removed unless they refuse to attend board meetings or engage in some wrongdoing that could land them in jail.
▪ Bar legislators — who appoint PSC commissioners and write the rules for electric monopolies — from accepting employment, campaign donations or gifts from regulated utilities.
▪ Make it harder to pass laws that legislators don’t understand. This has been needed for ages, but the collapse of the V.C. Summer project underscored the problem by highlighting the 2007 Base Load Review Act. That legislation was sold as a way to make it easier for utilities to get financing to build nuclear reactors, but it was a terribly complicated bill that did that in irresponsible ways. We need a system whereby debate is delayed on certain complex bills — and certainly all bills dealing with regulated utilities — until they have been reviewed for constitutional flaws and explained, in plain English, by knowledgeable, neutral experts. (A system already in place delays debate on tax and spending bills until experts certify how much they will increase or reduce state revenue.)
The House has passed several bills to address the problems that spawned our nuclear disaster. The Senate has passed a single measure: to give the PSC more time to rule on the SCE&G/Dominion Energy requests to keep collecting a nuclear surcharge, and to reduce the surcharge until it acts. And that bill is headed to conference committee.
Which brings us back to the be careful what you wish for problem: Several of the House’s reform efforts were embarrassingly timid, and others doubled-down on legislative control of responsibilities not best controlled by legislatures. And that’s a body where nearly every member consistently supports taking action even if SCANA and other utilities object.
In the Senate, minorities get outsized sway over the guts of legislation because a single determined member can kill a bill, and as many as a third of senators are hesitant to defy SCANA’s wishes. So it’s possible that any larger “reforms” that pass the Senate would actually make matters worse.
Still, if the Legislature or the courts slash the nuclear surcharge, public anger will quickly dissipate, and it will be even easier for our loosely regulated monopolies to have their way with our legislators when they demand the preservation of their status quo.
That is simply not acceptable. Senators must take action to right some of the wrongs they have helped create. The clock is ticking.
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.