While the South Carolina Legislature considers itself god-like in all things (e.g. telling cities and counties they cannot ban plastic grocery bags — but that’s another column), it would do well for itself to let the people decide the matter of whether to accept Dominion Energy’s offer to buy SCANA/SCE&G.
Whether the legislators in their august self-importance realize it or not, I think political careers are on the line in this matter. If they reject the deal and things go to hell (beyond the current hell), voters will remember who took them there.
I also think the majority of citizen-ratepayers in every legislative district served by SCE&G would support the Dominion deal in a referendum. Why? For several reasons, chief among them:
1. One thousand dollars — the average amount Dominion claims it will refund to each ratepayer — is real money, and a real refund on what the Legislature itself allowed SCANA to do to ratepayers under the Base Load Review Act.
2. $1.7 billion is real money, with that amount being paid by Dominion rather than us toward SCANA’s nuclear fiasco.
3. Five percent in rate reduction is real (if small) money, and looks very good in comparison to higher rates that would have to be imposed for SCANA/SCE&G to survive.
4. Dominion Energy is real, a major player in the utility industry with the resources and management to both execute and implement the deal.
5. Instability’s negative impact is real, with long-running lawsuits over the future of SCANA likely affecting South Carolina’s economic development efforts (and to be clear, SCANA has both shareholder obligations and legal rights with which to fight for them, the Legislature’s god complex notwithstanding).
Would we all like SCANA to have to pay for the nuclear fiasco? Of course. Is that likely to happen? Of course not.
Again, that is because of the law passed by the Legislature that made all of this possible to begin with, the Base Load Review Act. It gave SCANA the right to do what it did in terms of up-front rate hikes, and surprise, they did it. Now those same legislative geniuses (in many cases, literally the same people) want us to believe they can magically get us all of our money back.
While I think there is a case to be made (and I hope it is, in both civil and criminal courts) that SCANA executives knew the nuclear project was failing and hid that from regulators and the public in the wake of the Bechtel report), that would only apply to the final two years of the project and its rate hikes.
The prior seven years and its rate hikes are almost certainly on us, folks, thanks to the Legislature. And it is that same public body that now wants to kill the Dominion deal. I’d think about that if I were you.
And if I were them, I’d get your input. State political primaries are coming up in June, and putting the question of approval or rejection of the Dominion deal on the ballot in districts served by SCE&G would give those affected by the proposal the right to voice their opinion on it.
While such a referendum would be advisory in nature and not binding on the Legislature, I also think it would settle the matter. Legislators would know where their voters stand, and would go against that input at their own peril.
While some legislators will no doubt make excuses for why this could not be done, it could. And it should.
The people deserve the right to speak on a deal that affects them as directly (writing that check) and regularly (every month) as their power bill, especially so when it is their elected officials who got them into this mess to begin with.
Should the Legislature refuse to let the people speak directly, another alternative is for a news organization, university or public interest group to commission an independent, legitimate poll to gauge voter/ratepayer sentiment on the Dominion deal. Hello, Winthrop University Poll? League of Women Voters? SC Chamber of Commerce?
While I would prefer a direct vote of the people, a poll would at least give them a voice in the discussion. It’s time for that, as this decision is too important to be left to the politicians.
Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics.
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