Santee Cooper Rearranges The Deck Chairs

“Top-to-bottom reform?”

As we have chronicled extensively over the past few months, there is vigorous debate within the state of South Carolina over what to do with its scandal-scarred, debt-addled, abysmally managed government-run power provider, Santee Cooper.

Wait … state government runs a power company? Yes … albeitatrociously.

Our guess is the disposition of Santee Cooper will likely dominate next year’s gathering of the results-challenged S.C. General Assembly … which continues to amaze us by its ability to do less with more.

Which reminds us, the only reason we are having this debate is because lawmakers refused to sell Santee Cooper over a decade ago when we first proposed doing so – when such a sale would have netted taxpayers billions of dollars. Instead, they embarked on #NukeGate, a catastrophically mismanaged bid to build a pair of next generation nuclear reactors using billions of dollars in government debt – while simultaneously socializing the investment risk of Santee Cooper’s private partner in the reactor project, SCANA.

Scary, right? Indeed. Especially after the project imploded.

Scarier still, the same idiots who plunged the utility into its present debacle are now responsible for “fixing” it.

Yikes …

There are three general “solutions” to the Santee Cooper problem. First, the utility could be sold to a private sector provider (albeit at a fraction of what it would have netted taxpayers years ago). Second, a private sector provider could manage it (a solution we have reluctantly acknowledged might be the best move at the moment). Third, Santee Cooper could be allowed to continue to operate as a state-owned, state-run entity.

Needless to say, we believe the third option should be taken totally off the table in light of Santee Cooper’s track record of negligence and dishonesty. Unfortunately, many state lawmakers refuse to even consider parting with the utility – which they routinely leverage in connection with various market-distorting, crony capitalist economic development schemes (ahem).

Selling it would be surrendering their power … and lawmakers never do that.

This week, reporter Avery Wilks of The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper published an exclusive report revealing that Santee Cooper had decided to hire a retired utility executive from Arizona named Mark Bonsall to an eighteen-month contract as its chief executive officer.

“Chosen for his experience from a field of nearly a dozen candidates, Bonsall will be tasked with overseeing top-to-bottom reform of the state agency, even as lawmakers consider selling Santee Cooper in order to offload its debt,” Wilks reported.


We mean Bonsall no disrespect, but the time for “top-to-bottom reform” of Santee Cooper was before it plunged billions of dollars into a botched nuclear project.

Not after.

It is simply too late to save the utility now … certainly not without imposing massive additional rate hikes on its customers (and the customers of the electric cooperatives who receive their power from Santee Cooper). Also, let’s not forget these ratepayers are already paying more than they can afford each month for power … could they really handle higher bills?

Santee Cooper has embarked on an aggressive public relations/ image rehabilitation campaign over the last few months – pointedly challenging its critics and seeking to cultivate additional legislative and media support as a vote on its possible sale draws nigh. The announcement of Bonsall’s impending hire is obviously the latest component of that campaign – an effort to signal to policymakers that the utility is serious about implementing its reform proposals (which will be submitted to lawmakers early next year).

That’s all well and good. We are glad to see Santee Cooper is taking its situation seriously.

Again, though, where was this “reform focus” when it was screwing over taxpayers, ratepayers and bondholders to the tune of billions of dollars? And lying about it? And rewarding those responsible for the failure?

Hell, Santee Cooper is still paying the legal bills of its former executives in connection with an ongoing criminal inquiry into #NukeGate.

Yet the utility wishes to be seen as “reforming?”

Please …

Credible or not, at this point Santee Cooper’s “reform” movement amounts to little more than a proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the ill-fated RMS Titanic (or to use a more current analogy, a reconfiguration of the seating arrangements on a Boeing 737 Max jet).

Hopefully state lawmakers will see these developments in their proper context, but again … expecting the S.C. General Assembly to act rationally in connection with Santee Cooper is an invitation to further disappointment (and deeper debt).



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