By Ayinde Moir Waring
The 2019 Legislative session is officially over (barring any emergency meetings) and during the past 6 months, news from the State House was constant and sometimes confusing.
We heard of the push for increased teacher’s pay (thankfully), abortion bills, education reform and many other issues that generally get South Carolinians excited; albeit in a gamut of emotions (see gun reform).
But even with all of those pressing matters dominating headlines out of Columbia, there is one issue that is absolutely important, that seemed to take a back seat on our Legislators’ agendas.
That issue is “What To Do With Santee Cooper.”
For their part and in the words of one elected official, “We (The Legislative Body) didn’t do a damn thing about Santee Cooper, and it doesn’t make sense.”
Let me begin by confessing loud and clear: I am not an energy expert. Not even close. It is not my passion, nor my career. What I am and have pledged myself to be is an “active and engaged constituent” because in this day and age in our city, state and country, we must be more vigilant as ever as to the issues; both seen and unseen, that will ultimately affect us and our neighbors.
My interest in Santee Cooper first stemmed from a conversation with a friend, who voiced support for the sale of the state owned facility several months ago. During our conversation, he mentioned that as a state-owned facility, Santee Cooper in effect, could not be taxed, which meant that if it was privately held it would be subjected to the same tax laws of other privately held companies in the state.
This would mean that those taxable dollars could potentially be used to fund education, infrastructure improvements, drainage issues, and a myriad of other items.
This immediately sparked my interest, though I wasn’t armed with a full bag of information. I did know that I was willing to explore anything that could possibly benefit our education system.
Following that conversation, I began to do some research and speak with others, who were more versed in the energy field, and all agreed that our state did not need to be involved in the energy business.
Which brings us to today.
First, Santee Cooper and SCE&G are not the same thing.
I point this out because frankly most people don’t know the difference. Both ae energy suppliers and were in fact partnered in the failed VC Summer nuclear plant project. SCE&G was sold to Virginia-based Dominion Energy, while the fate of the Santee Cooper plant is still to be decided (in 2020).
In the meantime, taxpayers and ratepayers are left with an $8 billion debt, that’s incurring $1 million dollars a day in interest that by no fault of our own, we will be forced to pay.
Clearly something needed to be done.
I was extremely skeptical when Governor McMaster called for the formation of an investigative committee to explore a potential sale of the utility. I was born and raised in Charleston. I had seen enough “back-door” political moves take place that have often hurt the majority of residents while lining the pockets of a select few, who had long since been part of the “system.” I knew that all that glittered, no matter how shiny, was not gold.
But what I found (in my own research) was that in this particular case, McMaster seems to have made a good decision.
From the governor’s directive an initial study committee was formed in 2018, which after gathering information, led to the creation of a Senate study committee in 2019 that put out a request for bids to gauge interest in the potential purchase of Santee Cooper. This committee was made up of five Republicans including Senators Paul Campbell and Larry Grooms and four Democrats, including Senator Margie Bright-Matthews.
This request for bids led to the submission of 15 total proposals, four of which were deemed to be acceptable. Of those four, three proposed to eliminate the debt (through write-offs and other measures) without passing along this debt to consumers. This seemed like a slam-dunk. The sale appeared like a logical solution.
Then in true South Carolina fashion, nothing happened. In fact, it seemed like a real discussion of the sale would be pushed off until next year (with the debt still increasing). Like many others, I was perplexed. There seemed to be a prevailing sentiment of “maintaining status quo.” Well I have a lot of thoughts on “status quo” and most aren’t good.
Soon after this time of “standing pat,”, things began to shift. After a meeting with Santee Cooper Executives, it became clear that something needed to happen. During that meeting it was noted that executives couldn’t provide any real information on future rate increases. Energy rates had always been on the rise in South Carolina, somewhere in the neighborhood of 12% or so. From this meeting it was discovered that in fact this increase would be at least 15% (annually), as admitted by the Santee Cooper leaders. Senate President Harvey Peeler began a push to get something done. The sale of Santee Cooper began to move from an add-on item to a priority issue.
But again nothing happened. The Senate essentially voted to do what had already been done which is to “explore all options for Santee Cooper.”
To me the only real option that makes sense is to sell the utility to a company that truly understands the energy business.
But understand, thorough thought and research must be done before Santee Cooper is sold. There are many questions that need to be addressed in the negotiation process regarding pensions for current and retired Santee Cooper employees (though it seems some will simply move over to the state retirement plan), health insurance coverage for retired employees, job placements, etc. This will all have to be negotiated by our elected officials during their vetting of potential buyers. This will take time, which equals money and South Carolinians will be tasked with absorbing this.
Our Legislators need to make this sale happen and make sure that the potential buyer fully has the best interest of South Carolinians in mind. Then, once it is sold our Legislators need to ensure that those taxable dollars are allocated properly to fund our education system, infrastructure, etc. We the people of Charleston and South Carolina as a whole must hold them accountable to this. Be active constituents. Voice our opinions. Write letters. Make phone calls.
In the words of Representative David Mack, let them know, “I live in your District.” We put them in office and as public servants it is their duty to act accordingly.
Let’s turn this incredible loss into a major triumph.