Santee Cooper’s headquarters in Moncks Corner | Provided

A state Senate subcommittee unanimously passed a resolution Thursday that could force a Florida utility to turn over correspondence, documents and information on consulting fees related to an attempt to purchase the government-backed state electricity provider Santee Cooper.

“We’ve got a multibillion-dollar asset here,” S.C. Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, said today. “Are we being hoo-dooed into a fire sale by a huge utility? Are we selling it on the cheap? Should we sell it when no one has done a side-by-side projection about rates?”

Santee Cooper came under scrutiny in 2017 after the implosion of a $9 billion effort to build a nuclear power facility in Fairfield County. Santee Cooper’s share of the busted project, being built with then-existing S.C. Electric & Gas, was about $4 billion. Since then, legislators have struggled with whether to sell Santee Cooper, get a company to manage it or allow it to reform itself.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Rankin, the Horry County Republican who authored the resolution that seeks extensive disclosure of information from Florida’s NextEra Energy, today said the Senate was making a good-faith effort to get facts and conduct due diligence on the future of Santee Cooper.

“What we don’t know is what’s going on behind the scenes and the numbers they [NextEra] produced to the Department of Administration are not the full story,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to get the full story.”

Rankin

On Thursday, the subcommittee voted to send the Senate resolution (S. 475) by Rankin to the Senate Judiciary Committee to consider, possibly during the week of Feb. 8. The subcommittee, however, will meet 3 p.m. Tuesday to consider a Santee Cooper reform proposal by Rankin. Other members of the subcommittee include state GOP Sens. Chip Campsen of Charleston, Scott Talley of Spartanburg and Brian Adams of Goose Creek, and Democratic Sens. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Margie Bright Matthews of Walterboro.

Like Harpootlian, Rankin said it was important for legislators to know what was in the state’s best interest before deciding Santee Cooper’s future.

“For those in my area who are direct service customers, the prospect of paying more in a monthly electric bill just because somebody wanted to sell it for a subjective political reason — that ain’t going to square,” Rankin said.

Responding to a Jan. 15 letter

At issue Thursday was a Jan. 15 response by NextEra Energy to a Dec. 31 subcommittee request for information about the company’s interest and activities related to the future of Santee Cooper. The company is interested in purchasing the utility, as chairman and CEO Jim Robo wrote: “NextEra has been pleased to participate in the several processes South Carolina has undertaken related to the potential sale of Santee Cooper’s assets. We would welcome the opportunity to become the service provider to nearly 2 million South Carolinians…”

He went on to say the company had provided “a very significant quantity and material to our business, to the goals and objectives in our bid, and to how we would serve the residents and businesses currently served by Santee Cooper.” But he said the company “will not be providing additional documentation at this time.”

That was a slap in the face to some in the state Senate, which led to Rankin’s resolution being introduced on Jan. 21. 

Harpootlian

“The members of the subcommittee — me and a few others — are not committed to not sell or to sell Santee Cooper,” Harpootlian said. “We want to know what our options are.”

If Rankin’s resolution passes the Senate and House as written, it would require NextEra to provide mounds of information since July 31, 2017 — all Santee Cooper-related correspondence to legislators, staff and the governor as well as lists of and payments to law firms, consultants, lobbyists, public relations individuals hired directly or indirectly to help the company’s effort. The resolution also seeks lists of S.C. political and charitable contributions, and payments to chambers of commerce, political blogs and social media entities.

Harpootlian said he was ready to filibuster efforts on Santee Cooper if NextEra Energy didn’t give answers to the Senate’s questions.

Rankin said the committee also was exploring use of subpoena power to get the information it wants from NextEra.

“If this is an objectively-driven decision, then why would there be any opposition to producing the requested items we’ve set forth?” Rankin asked. “If it is not objectively-driven, but more politically-driven, then let’s be honest about that, too. The bottom line question is, what is in the state’s interest?”

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