COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina House on Wednesday insisted a utility cut its rate by 18 percent to eliminate a fee customers are paying for two nuclear plants that were abandoned before generating a watt of power.
The few members on the losing side of the 104-7 vote warned their colleagues that they were playing a dangerous game of chicken with the state Senate, which passed a 13 percent cut for South Carolina Electric & Gas customers last week.
Now a conference committee of senators and House members has to come up with an agreement or there may be no rate cut at all. The General Assembly has seven more working days this session.
“I hope if we roll the dice, it is really worth that extra 5 percent,” said Democratic Rep. Russell Ott of St. Matthews.
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But other House members said they owed it to ratepayers to assure they pay nothing more for the two mothballed reactors at the V.C. Summer Plant in Jenkinsville.
“If somebody steals 10 apples from you, and you get six back, that’s not right,” said Republican Rep. John McCravy of Hodges.
Gov. Henry McMaster’s renewed vow to veto any cut less than 18 percent complicates the issue. The Senate might not have enough votes to override a veto of a lesser cut. During last week’s debate it appeared there wasn’t majority support for the full cut either, which would take about $27 off the average customer’s monthly bill.
And looming over the decision is Virginia-based Dominion Energy’s offer to buy SCE&G’s parent company SCANA Corp. The utility has offered rebates of around $1,000 to SCE&G customers, a smaller cut in rates and a promise not to raise rates for three years. But they said either rate cut proposal was too much and would likely make them take back the merger offer.
Much of the House’s frustration came out again in Wednesday’s debate. The chamber has passed five bills, cutting rates, changing the composition and qualifications of the regulators who sit on the Public Service Commission and strengthening a consumer advocate’s office. Those bills have stalled in the Senate.
Rep. Peter McCoy suggested a vote to not cut the fee entirely would “reward the criminal acts of SCANA.”
The Charleston Republican has led a committee studying how the 10-year planning and construction of the two new reactors wheezed to a halt last summer.
House Majority Leader Gary Simrill of Rock Hill, the chamber’s leading Republican, was cheered when he said he wanted to “exhaust every possible strand to protect the ratepayer.”
But some senators said that is shortsighted. Sen Brad Hutto said SCE&G will almost certainly sue, saying the Legislature has no power to set rates and if they win, customers would lose the rate cut and the money offered by Dominion.
“It’s pure politics and bad politics,” the Orangeburg Democrat said.
The 13 percent cut passed by the Senate was carefully thought out and puts electric rates back where they were when SCE&G started lying about the project three years , said Sen. Sandy Senn, a Republican from Charleston.
The governor again Wednesday renewed a vow he made early in the year to veto any bill that doesn’t eliminate the fee and give back the $37 million a month SCE&G collects on the abandoned reactors, saying each payment defies logic, common sense and good faith.
“We should be rushing to get them their money back, not rushing to see how much more we’re going to let the company charge them for something they’re not going to get. It’s absurd,” said McMaster, who is up for re-election this year along with each House member.
The bill does not affect rates paid by state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which owned 45 percent of the plants and has about $8 billion in debt. McMaster has urged the state sell the utility, and the House passed a bill creating a committee to study the move.
Associated Press writer Christina L. Myers contributed to this report.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter . See his work at apnews.com