South Carolina Senate passes rate cut, threatening merger

South Carolina Senate passes rate cut, threatening merger

The stall tactic was in full force on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Senate.

After much debate and even a filibuster that spanned hours, senators voted to pass S.954, which would lower SCE&G (South Carolina Electric & Gas) customers' bills by 13 percent temporarily while regulators review a proposed merger deal between Dominion Energy and SCANA. The 13 percent of customers' bills senators voted to cut, is most of the charge for the failed nuclear reactors out at the V.C. Summer site in Fairfield County. Lawmakers have been discussing how to help customers since the project's abandonment on July 31.

Customers have expressed frustration in paying the nuclear fee, resulting in higher bills over the years.

"I had to borrow the money to pay my light bill, and I live in a house that's 50's to 60's degrees- nothing over 60," customer Doris Fletcher said.

However, Senator Brad Hutto (D- Orangeburg) held the floor for hours, to try to block S.954 from passing. Hutto said it is unconstitutional to reduce the rates, and that it would be challenged in court that ultimately taxpayers would fund. Dominion has been outspoken against lowering rates this way; Hutto pushed against the bill, expressing his view the Dominion deal would be better in the long run.

Dominion handed-out fliers to senators ahead of discussions on S.954, with bullet points comparing their deal benefits to the Senate's plan.

"But if you go down here if you see, if we go with this Senate plan," Sen. Hutto said from the podium as he held one of the fliers, "you're going to get temporary relief. If you don't do anything and the merger goes through, it's going to be permanent relief."

Dominion has advertised immediate cash refunds for customers once the deal is sealed. They said the average household would see a one-time $1,000 refund. They also said rates would be dropped by seven percent. However, senators argued on Wednesday that rate is due to Congress' tax reform and a slight reduction SCE&G already proposed.

Chet Wade, Dominion's Vice President for Corporate Communications, said the bill would make the merger more expensive for the company in the long run, adding that "it takes money away from SCE&G would make it impossible for us to move forward. We already are proposing a great deal of customer benefit in terms of lower rates, that $1,000 check to an average homeowner."

There are polls that have shown customers support the merger. However, some are still skeptical of Dominion. Doris Fletcher wants the Base Load Review Act repealed. That's the law on the books that allows utilities to charge their customers for projects before they are completed, as was done by SCE&G with the reactors at V.C. Summer. Dominion is against a bill that would do that, too.

"People can't afford to live here, and it's not going to be any better when we go to that Dominion," Fletcher said.

Dominion warns senators they will leave the proposed deal, should certain bills pass. "Anything that layers on additional costs and that's what this does, 
it takes money away from SC&G, would make it impossible for us to move forward," said Chet Wade.

Senators who voted in favor of the 13 percent reduction challenge that, however.

"I would hope that if Dominion really wants to be in South Carolina, and if they really want to serve South Carolinians, that this wouldn't make them walk away. But if it does, I think it opens it up to other companies to make offers as well," Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey (R- Edgefield) said.

"We're really going to see now for the first time what kind of company Dominion is, are they willing to stick by their statement that if you reduce rates, we're leaving town? And what message does that say to South Carolina that the only reason they were going to come here is that we were going to allow them to charge a 13 percent higher rate?" Sen. Mike Fanning (D- Fairfield) said.

The bill still is not law, yet. It goes back to the House for a vote. If they don't agree with the Senate, there will be a meeting where both House and Senate strike a compromise. Then, it's on to Governor Henry McMaster's desk.

McMaster has pledged to veto anything that does not cut the entire nuclear rate customers have been paying, and that would require an 18 percent rollback. The House's version of S.954 did that before the Senate changed that to 13 percent.

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