SC lawmakers seek to block SCANA’s campaign donations

SCANA’s campaign contributions may not have bought the 2007 passage of a law that enabled the Cayce-based company’s failed, $9 billion nuclear expansion project. But the utility’s donations to lawmakers and their political caucuses certainly didn’t hurt.

Some legislators see that as a problem worth fixing.

As legislators return to Columbia Tuesday for the start of a new session, they have filed a handful of proposals to block utilities – granted a monopoly under S.C. law but subject to state regulation – from showering their watchdogs with campaign cash.

“As a (first-term senator), it never even occurred to me that here we are regulating these industries, and here they are turning around and giving us money,” said state Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, who pitched one of the bills. “They’ve been doing this for years and years and years, and it gave them a certain amount of sway.”

For years, SCANA has been one of the largest, most powerful special interests that lobbies the Legislature. Since 2000, the former Fortune 500 company has contributed at least $1.25 million to lawmakers’ campaigns, including writing checks to 31 of the 32 legislators who investigated the V.C. Summer fiasco last fall.

A SCANA spokesman has said none of the contributions by the utility, its political action committees or employees were “made to any official to support the passage or defeat of any specific legislation, or to advocate on behalf of our company.”

Those contributions – usually made in three-figure doses – are not hefty enough to truly sway a lawmaker’s point of view, some members of the General Assembly say.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, has said the real problem stems from the cozy relationships some lawmakers strike up with utilities and their lobbyists.

However, others say the campaign donations give utilities an unfair advantage over their customers. In the case of SCANA, for instance, the legislators who received donations from the utility also appointed the regulators who approved nine rate hikes for the utility’s customers to help pay for the company’s failing nuclear project.

“It gives them an ear,” Senn said of the donations. “When someone has contributed to my campaign, they’re going to have an open door to my office. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to agree with them. But, certainly, I’m going to listen to them.”

State Reps. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, and Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, have filed a similar proposal to ban contributions by utilities in the S.C. House. Their bill also would prohibit state utility regulators from receiving anything of value from the companies that they oversee. Lobbyists also would have to disclose any contact they make with those regulators.

First-term state Sen. Mike Fanning, D-Fairfield, also has filed a similar bill, saying the system should better protect power customers.

“We created this mess in the General Assembly,” Fanning said. “We were the ones that granted someone a monopoly. We then rubber-stamped their request to increase rates, and, in the meantime, we received lots of money in donations.”

The proposals follow several legislators returning campaign contributions made by SCANA.

Fanning said he returned a $500 check from SCANA after the utility’s nuclear project collapsed.

Senn, meanwhile, donated the $1,000 she received to a charity that helps low-income families pay their bills. “I didn’t want there to be any indication that I … would be influenced by them.”