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#NukeGate: Shady Offline Negotiations Must Stop

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More than perhaps any other lawmaker, fiscally liberal state senator Luke Rankin of Horry County, South Carolina bears direct responsibility for the now-notorious “Base Load Review Act.”

This, of course, is the constitutionally dubious, special interest legislation that effectively socialized $2 billion (and counting) worth of investment risk associated with the abandoned V.C. Summer nuclear power expansion project – a.k.a. #NukeGate.

Basically, lawmakers allowed crony capitalist utility SCANA and its state-owned partner, Santee Cooper, to force ratepayers to shell out this cash on a pair of next generation reactors that are now unlikely to ever be completed.

In addition to being a lead sponsor of this legislation in the Senate, Rankin – a party-switching “former” Democrat – was a member of the S.C. Senate judiciary subcommittee that advanced this legislation to the floor of the Senate (where it passed on a unanimous voice vote).

His fingerprints are all over the hated law, in other words …

Same goes for establishment “Republican” senator Larry Grooms of Berkeley County – who joined Rankin and more than a dozen other senators (ahem) in sponsoring this abomination back in 2007.

Why are we singling out Rankin and Grooms today?  Because these two politicians – who deserve to be run out of the S.C. State House on a rail for their shortsightedness and subservience to the status quo – are among the state senators currently engaged in offline negotiations to “extricate” the Palmetto State from this $10 billion hole in the ground.

That’s right … the politicians who landed our state in this mess now want us to trust them to dig us out.

Oh, and they want to conduct their negotiations under the cover of darkness …

What could possibly go wrong, right?

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We addressed these offline negotiations earlier this week in this piece, and several weeks ago we exclusively reported on another round of offline negotiations involving newly elected state senator Mike Fanning – who represents the district where the abandoned reactors are located.

In fairness to Fanning, he has infinitely more credibility here than either Rankin or Grooms (who ought to recuse themselves from any role in these discussions).  Not only does Fanning represent the impacted area, but as a newly elected senator he has no connection to the legislation that created this debacle in the first place.

Still, all of these offline negotiations are problematic …

First and foremost, they are being conducted behind closed doors – which is especially troublesome considering one of the items up for sale is a government-owned utility.

Shouldn’t public officials discussing the possible sale of a state-owned asset conduct their deliberations in the light of day?

Absolutely …

Otherwise we end up with mixed messages and lingering uncertainty – a nebulous scenario which is destroying out state’s credibility with bond markets, scaring off potential corporate partners and further eroding public trust.

Yesterday, for example, national outlets started picking up on the uncertainty associated with rumored negotiations for state-owned Santee Cooper involving Florida-based NextEra Energy.

“State senators who’ve been privy to conversations with NextEra can’t seem to figure out exactly how much it’s willing to pay (for Santee Cooper),” a report in Bloomberg noted.  “Depending on who you talk to, the company has thrown out figures ranging from $6 billion to $15.9 billion, state Senator Luke Rankin said in an interview. A second senator, Shane Massey, said he knew only of NextEra expressing interest in the utility and didn’t recall it ever giving firm numbers.”

Grooms is referenced in another report throwing out a completely different figure for Santee Cooper.

Further complicating matters, one of the companies referenced by The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier as a potential Santee Cooper suitor – Pacolet Milliken – issued a statement late Friday denying published reports that it had submitted an offer for the debt-addled utility.

The paper quoted “anonymous sources” in its discussion of the rumored Pacolet Milliken deal.

What a mess …

#NukeGate has made South Carolina a laughing stock … but the disjointed, uncoordinated, uninformed and reflexive response of our “leaders” to this mushrooming debacle is threatening to do even more damage.  Undisclosed, offline negotiations – especially negotiations involving a state-owned asset – must stop immediately.

Lawmakers can try to play savior here all they want, but they must publicly disclose who they spoke with, what terms were discussed and (given the rampant corruption that exists in this state) what, if any, financial connection they have to the deal.

The bottom line here is simple: The solution to a spectacularly failed government intervention in our state’s energy economy is not to allow the architects of that failure to go behind the public’s back and negotiate an exit strategy.

That’s just an open invitation for our state to get screwed … again.

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