The South Carolina Senate’s Embarrassing Implosion

Emergency, schmemergency …

It was supposed to be simple. Straightforward. Noncontroversial. Perfunctory. South Carolina lawmakers – staring down a global health care crisis – were supposed to convene briefly at the state capital building in Columbia, S.C. this week to pass two emergency pieces of legislation.

It should have taken a matter of minutes …

As we reported last month, item No. 1 on their list was a continuing resolution aimed at funding state government at its current levels in anticipation of looming shortfalls in revenue. Item No. 2 was a resolution calling on the S.C. General Assembly to adjourn sine die, which is Latin for “without day.”

Basically, lawmakers were supposed to agree to the same spending plan they passed last year – and then agree not to meet again until further notice.

Passing these two emergency measures was supposed to afford the legislative branch of government maximum flexibility moving forward – which matters given the looming uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic (and the likelihood that the $2 billion in new money they were going to spend in the coming fiscal year has vanished).

Similarly, language pushed by S.C. speaker of the House Jay Lucas and powerful Senate finance committee chairman Hugh Leatherman regarding embattled government-run power provider Santee Cooper sought to preserve flexibility moving forward.

With growing numbers of lawmakers recognizing the need to sell Santee Cooper – as opposed to “reforming” it (whatever that means) – Lucas and Leatherman sought to keep that option on the table as part of the emergency resolutions.

Their language didn’t call for Santee Cooper to be sold, mind you, it merely preserved the option moving forward.

Again, in the name of flexibility …

How did Santee Cooper respond to this language? Not well …

As we exclusively reported yesterday morning – prior to the legislature convening – the utility sought to push back against Lucas and Leatherman by telling multiple legislative leaders it had cut a deal with Central Electric Power Cooperative, a glorified middleman that routes power from Santee Cooper to a statewide network of roughly twenty regional electric cooperatives.

Such a deal would have dramatically altered the calculus associated with a prospective sale of the utility.

The only problem? There was no deal.

Santee Cooper (surprise) lied to lawmakers – just as they lied to South Carolinians habitually during NukeGate, a failed government-driven attempt to build a pair of next generation nuclear reactors in Jenkinsville, S.C.

That debacle – which was abandoned in 2017 – set the state back $10 billion with nothing to show for it.

House leaders were enraged at the latest deception, with Lucas, ways and means chairman Murrell Smith and majority leader Gary Simrill all railing against the dishonesty of the utility and its apologists in the S.C. Senate.

In a letter (.pdf) obtained by this news outlet, Lucas ripped Santee Cooper as a “rogue entity, seeking to satisfy its own priorities rather than those of ratepayers, taxpayers and the state of South Carolina.”

Meanwhile Simrill challenged the Senate to take a stand against Santee Cooper’s latest untruthful, unprincipled political maneuvers.

“Let them decide,” Simrill said, referring to the Senate. “Is one agency more important than the citizens of South Carolina?”

Naturally, the Senate made the correct choice, right? Surely, Santee Cooper’s apologists abandoned any and all remaining loyalty to this debt-addled, abysmally managed, chronically deceitful state-owned utility, correct?

No …

(Click to view)

(Via: Columbia SC Photographer Travis Bell)

During a contentious, six-hour debate on Wednesday afternoon, Santee Cooper’s supporters in the Senate – including Luke Rankin, Larry Grooms, Nikki Setzler and Stephen Goldfinch – dug in their heels on behalf of the utility. They refused to adopt either the emergency spending resolution or the adjournment resolution – sending amended versions of both measures back to the House.

In other words, there is no deal on either item … which means the legislature is at an impasse and lawmakers will have to return to Columbia again to address the spending plan and their future schedules. With no agreement in sight.

Again, all because of Santee Cooper …

House leaders weren’t the only ones livid at the utility (and its Senate obstructionists). Governor Henry McMaster – whose administration tried and failed in its bid to present lawmakers with options for its disposition – blasted its leaders.

“There appears to be no tactic or action too deceitful or reckless for the leaders of Santee Cooper to employ,” McMaster wrote on Facebook. “This includes exploiting the pandemic to maintain the status quo with today’s five-hour Senate filibuster. I commend and thank every member of the House of Representatives for doing their jobs and placing the safety and health of our state’s residents above politics.”

This news outlet rarely finds itself singing from the same sheet of music as McMaster, Leatherman or Lucas, but in this case all three of them are right. In fact, we led the chorus of contempt for Santee Cooper in our report early Wednesday.

“These duplicitous, eleventh hour machinations by Santee Cooper and its legislative backers provide further evidence in support of our long-held belief that the citizens and taxpayers of South Carolina must rid themselves of this albatross sooner rather than later,” we wrote.

(Click to view)

(Via: Columbia SC Photographer Travis Bell)

Sadly, this argument – which we have been making for the last dozen years – is no closer to receiving an up-or-down vote today than it was when we first suggested it in the spring of 2008 (when selling Santee Cooper would have netted taxpayers billions of dollars).

Meanwhile, thanks to its Senate apologists, Santee Cooper appears to be successfully leveraging the coronavirus crisis to shut down debate on this issue at a time when the discussion is clearly more relevant than ever. In fact, the utility and its Senate backers have now forced a government shutdown due to their efforts to block so much as a conversation on the topic.

Shameful …

Do you believe your government should be derelict in its emergency duties during a time of crisis? All because a habitually dishonest state agency (one that should have been privatized over a decade ago) is manipulating the process to further embed itself within the public sector?

Neither do we … but that is exactly what happened in Columbia, S.C. on Wednesday.




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