As a major commercial customer of Santee Cooper, I know rates for the hotels and resorts we manage are low and that the reliability of utility service to our properties is high. I am worried about a potential change in ownership of Santee Cooper, and I have big concerns about the “sell Santee Cooper” debate that’s happening in Columbia.
As it stands right now, the South Carolina House of Representatives is poised to pass a bill as soon as next week that authorizes a sale of Santee Cooper – ignoring the years of work and the recommendations of experts who were charged with soliciting and evaluating proposals for the sale, management, and reform of the state-owned utility that ultimately provides power to over half our State’s residents. Under H.3194, a committee of six legislators, three from the House and three from the Senate, would decide the fate of Santee Cooper and could completely ignore the evaluative, expert-informed negotiation process that has already occurred. Yes, H.3194 does establish significant reforms of Santee Cooper that would change how the utility operates until it is sold. But the reform elements of this bill are overshadowed by the rush to sell one of our State’s most valuable assets.
The SC House needs to slow down.
For the sake of customers and ratepayers we should all want any transaction or reform to include an arms-length negotiation, be transparent to its customers and stakeholders, based on known and independently confirmed data, and allow sufficient time for the best decision to be made. This bill requires little to none of these considerations. In fact, it is entirely possible that the House appointees to such a committee would already be predisposed to a sale based on comments from its leadership. It seems that right now the House is saying “full speed ahead” without even looking to see if torpedoes are in the water.
As noted previously, we have already been through this process…yet here we are again. The Department of Administration (DOA), with numerous financial consultants and an exhaustive review, made recommendations to the General Assembly last year. The DOA recommended options for sale, third-party management, or reform of Santee Cooper and the General Assembly considered many of those last year. Yet, now, those recommendations are being ignored and the process is set to start again – likely because of an intense lobbying and a misleading PR campaign from shadowy groups. What is the source of the funding for those groups? NextEra recently refused a Senate Judiciary subcommittee’s request for details about its lobbying activity, campaign donations and payments to third-party groups, which could speak volumes about what in fact are the sources for this recent PR effort to circumvent the years of important and informed work on this subject.
There is legitimate concern about Santee Cooper’s recent history. But there have also been deliberate steps (albeit small ones) by Santee Cooper leadership towards reform. Has the utility done enough to reform itself? Not even close. But they have also not done enough that warrants turning one of our State’s most valuable economic assets over to an out-of-state private interest with less-than-transparent practices.
A lot of legislative time has been spent on the issue of Santee Cooper, but it is a big decision. South Carolina must get it right. This is not a decision to be made on old data, no process requirements, and no guidelines. Any action – either selling or reforming the utility – without intense and thoughtful consideration of these issues would work counter to what is truly best for Santee Cooper customers and the State.
Clay Brittain III of Myrtle Beach is chair of Brittain Resorts & Hotels, which manages 20 resorts in the Grand Strand.
This story was originally published on Statehouse Report.