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South Carolina House passes bill to study Santee Cooper sale

COLUMBIA (AP) The South Carolina House passed another bill dealing with the failed construction of two nuclear plants, this time creating a committee to study the possible sale of state-owned utility Santee Cooper.

The proposal, approved on a 104-7 vote, also lets the governor fire the board that runs Santee Cooper, allowing members to remain until replacements are found.

House Speaker Jay Lucas pointed out it was the fifth bill in his chamber’s “ratepayer protection package” passed by the House this year. Other proposals would eliminate the monthly charge for the abandoned plants from utility bills and restructure how utilities are regulated. All five are awaiting action in the Senate with five weeks to go in the Legislature’s session.

“Every single day that passes without Senate action denies South Carolina ratepayers of the protections they deserve,” Lucas, a Republican from Hartsville, said in a statement.

The Senate is not meeting this week.

Gov. Henry McMaster backs the sale of Santee Cooper, saying it should help pay off some of the utility’s $8 billion in debt, more than half of it incurred by the company’s minority share in two nuclear reactors abandoned last year after 10 years of planning and construction. SCANA Corp. was the majority partner.

Last week, an angry McMaster chastised Santee Cooper lobbyists for working against the sale of the utility. Santee Cooper said it also had admonished the lobbyists. The company said its lobbyists are there only to answer questions from lawmakers, not to advocate for a position.

“The leadership of this rogue agency has demonstrated on numerous occasions that their interest lies in protecting their own jobs rather than protecting their own ratepayers,” McMaster said in a statement after the House vote. “As I have stated before — the only feasible solution to protect ratepayers from shouldering this debt is the sale of Santee Cooper.”

House members were careful to point out that they were willing to study the sale, but not to recommend it as definitively as McMaster.

Rep. Peter McCoy, the Charleston Republican who has led the House’s efforts to pass bills to respond to the failed nuclear plant construction, said it is vital any action regarding Santee Cooper be taken in public since taxpayers are on the hook.

“If there is an offer on the table, we don’t want to hear it behind closed doors,” McCoy said.

The House bill also sets aside settlement money and any money made by selling equipment and other assets at the abandoned construction site at the V.C. Summer plant in Jenkinsville to lower the power rates for Santee Cooper customers.

Most of the seven votes against the measure came from Horry County lawmakers who did not like the composition of the study committee.

The committee would be made up of nine members: three picked by the House, three by the Senate and three by the governor. The lawmakers who voted no didn’t want the governor to have as many seats as each chamber, given that he has made it clear he wants to sell and would likely appoint members who agree with him.

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