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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The Democratic candidates seeking to become South Carolina’s next governor squared off in a vigorous debate Thursday night that stood in contrast to the less combative Republican debate held a night earlier.

The two outsider Democratic hopefuls sought to blame longtime state Rep. James Smith for the multibillion-dollar boondoggle known as the V.C. Summer nuclear project. Smith reminded both that the legal framework for the ill-fated project was passed by a Legislature firmly controlled by Republicans.

“It’s either dishonest or naive to not understand that the Legislature is run by the other party,” Smith said.

Smith also reminded the audience of his military service, which took him out of the country when other lawmakers agreed to let utilities charge customers years in advance for the nuclear energy that never materialized.

“This is a robbery,” Charleston consultant Phil Noble said, describing the failed reactor project, for which customers have already been forced to pay a collective $2 billion, and for which the utilities involved are seeking to recoup billions more, even though it never generated any power.

More precisely, Noble called it “a $9 billion robbery of the people of South Carolina, aided and abetted by a state Legislature that is little more than a wholly owned subsidiary of the utilities.”

“The Legislature has let the state down,” added Florence attorney Marguerite Willis.

Smith cited many achievements over his 22 years in the state House of Representatives, but the nuclear financing vote was one he didn’t participate in: He was deployed with the National Guard in Afghanistan when lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to approve the Base Load Review Act in 2007, which obligated customers to pay in advance for the ill-fated massive construction.

House and Senate lawmakers are currently hashing out differences between legislative proposals to ameliorate ratepayers’ burden in the wake of the project failure.

“I will make sure that we have an energy plan that works for South Carolina and South Carolinians,” Smith said. He pointed to his work pushing for a consumer advocate to represent utility customers’ needs, and said he would elevate a state energy office to report to him if elected governor.

Smith encouraged his opponents to “attack the problems, not each other.” He also noted that the Legislature is firmly in Republican hands.

Asked about education, all three candidates pledged to work toward increasing teacher pay, with Noble saying radical, systemic change is needed to move South Carolina from the bottom of national education rankings.

“We need to junk the system we’ve got now,” Noble said, proposing a revamp from pre-K all the way through college. “We’ve got stale, old thinking that has kept us in the same box over and over again.”

Willis again took the opportunity to blame Smith for the state’s failings.

“My question is, where has Mr. Smith been for the past 22 years?” Willis asked. “He is talking big now, but he hasn’t done much in the past.”

Smith responded that he had been working to effect change, while Willis made money practicing law.

Gov. Henry McMaster and the four Republicans seeking to unseat him debated on the same stage at Clemson University the night before. Both sets of candidates have another set of back-to-back debates at the University of South Carolina on June 4 and 5.


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