By Paul Gable
Sub-committees of the SC House Labor Commerce and Industry Committee and the SC Senate Judiciary Committee published notice Monday that hearings would be held this week for the companion bills to amend the rules by which electrical cooperatives may contract for power.
It is extremely unusual for sub-committee hearings to be announced on Monday and held on Wednesday and Thursday of the same week of announcement.
It is not surprising in this case, however, as officials and directors of the state’s electric cooperatives are currently in Nashville, Tennessee for the annual conference of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association,. The Senate sub-committee hearing for the bill sponsored by Horry County Sen. Luke Rankin is scheduled for Wednesday March 8, 2023 with House sub-committee hearing for the companion bill sponsored by Horry County Rep. Heather Crawford scheduled for Thursday March 9, 2023. The national conference is scheduled to run through March 8, 2023.
The general consensus among electric cooperative officials and their customers is the purpose of these bills is to force the co-ops to purchase their power from state owned Santee Cooper regardless of price. The bills require the co-ops to submit any proposed contracts for the purchase of power for approval from the Joint Bond Review Committee, the Public Utilities Review Committee and the Public Service Commission.
What better way to limit negative testimony and comments with regards to these bills than to schedule hearings when those most affected by passage of the bills are out of town on cooperative business? This scenario wouldn’t make good fiction, but it is what is happening, in fact.
The General Assembly blocked the sale of Santee Cooper to either of two private commercial suitors after the state-owned utility was strapped with significant debt and legal problems after it abandoned the failed Summer Nuclear Power Plant construction project. The project was horribly mismanaged from the beginning. As part of the settlement agreement of a class action lawsuit against Santee Cooper over the construction debacle, the utility promised not to raise electricity rates for four years.
The four-year period of rate stability ends next year. It is expected Santee Cooper will seek to significantly increase its rates to consumers after the period ends. The electrical cooperatives are some of the largest consumers of power from the state utility. Increased rates to the cooperatives mean increased rates to homeowners and businesses served by them.
The mission of the state’s electrical cooperatives is to provide affordable and reliable power to their consumers. The ability to shop among several producers for the best rates available in the market would seem to be a given in such a supposedly conservative state. However, this is exactly what these proposed bills are trying to avoid by apparently forcing the cooperatives to purchase all their power from state owned Santee Cooper regardless of cost.
That the impact on consumers (constituents) is not a consideration for the legislators involved is apparent from the conflict they cause for Crawford, the primary sponsor of the House bill. In addition to being a representative to the SC House, Crawford was also appointed by newly elected Congressman Russell Fry to serve as District Director for his SC 7th Congressional District. As district director, it is Crawford’s job to oversee and supervise all contacts between constituents and the Congressional office.
At the same time Crawford was introducing her bill in the SC House, negatively affecting all of her and most of Fry’s constituents, Fry was attempting to have the electrical co-ops in his Congressional district organize a fundraiser for his 2024 reelection campaign. You can’t make this stuff up, it’s too clueless for imagination. But, it also demonstrates the inherent conflict between Crawford’s elected position as a state legislator and appointed position as district director for Russell Fry.