Debate over Santee Cooper slows down SC lawmakers’ plan to avoid shutdown

Debate over Santee Cooper slows down SC lawmakers’ plan to avoid shutdown

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Leadership at the State House said the reason they called lawmakers back to Columbia for a one-day session was to pass measures to avoid a government shutdown later this year.

They also wanted to pass a measure that would outline what topics they can debate and vote on after the session is over. The regular session ends on May 14th.

Leadership said they decided to do this now so they would avoid calling members in during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic in South Carolina.

They expected the votes to go fairly quickly and both measures to pass Wednesday in both chambers.

Before House members voted, Representative Murrell Smith (R-Sumter) took the floor to share that House members and Senators could not come to a compromise over the continuing resolution. This measure would keep state government-funded if a budget isn’t passed by the start of the next fiscal year.

A continuing resolution is usually passed every year during budget debates.

Rep. Smith said the disagreements were over a portion of the resolution that was about Santee Cooper. He said, "We cannot allow people to take advantage of a crisis."

Speaker of the House Jay Lucas (R-Darlington) sent a letter to the chairman of the Santee Cooper board and Santee Cooper CEO Mark Bonsall. Speaker Lucas wrote, “Let me be explicitly clear, if state law gave me or the House of Representatives the authority, I would seek the immediate unqualified removal of each member of the Santee Cooper Board and the dismissal, for cause, of the entire senior management. Unfortunately for the people of South Carolina, I do not have that authority. However, I do predict and will applaud your ultimate removal from your positions in the appropriate manner.”

You can read more of Speaker Lucas’ letter below.

We have reached out to Santee Cooper for comment.

The House voted unanimously to approve the continuing resolution. The measure sets aside up to $180 million that can be used for any coronavirus pandemic response in South Carolina. The Governor would decide where and how much of that money can be used.

The resolution also sets aside about $15 million for the June primaries. That money could be used to protect poll workers, voters, and other staff and cover any voting changes made to the elections because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) said, "We have to make sure the state and we have the reserves to do that. That's what we were able to do. We have to make sure this state can still function and can continue to be okay."

Over in the Senate, Senators spent hours debating the continuing resolution. Some Senators were concerned about restrictions outlined for Santee Cooper in that measure.

Senators debated language in that resolution that would not allow the state-owned utility to enter into contracts that last longer than a year. Before the pandemic, lawmakers were debating the future of Santee Cooper. They were considering bids to buy, manage or reform the state-owned utility.

Some Senators questioned why the Santee Cooper provision was included in the continuing resolution. Sen. Luke Rankin (R-Horry) said, "Why are we going to reward the House for playing footsie with someone not in this room? Why are we going to take this cram-down?"

After five hours of debate, Senators approved an amended version of that continuing resolution Wednesday evening. Their change included a measure that any decision made by the state-owned utility would need to be approved by a panel of lawmakers. That panel includes Governor Henry McMaster, Speaker of the House Jay Lucas, Senate President Harvey Peeler and both chairmen of the budget-writing committees.

Speaker Lucas released a statement after the vote. He said, "Today’s vote in the Senate is a shameless abdication of leadership.”

Senators also approved a Sine Die resolution. This resolution is usually passed near the end of session to give lawmakers an outline of what issues they can take up once the official calendar is over.

Senators said the resolution allows them to come back after session ends for budget vetos, new Sine Die resolutions, appointments, anything related to coronavirus response and any legislation passed in the House and Senate.

Senate leadership did not comment after they adjourned.

The House has not set a date for when they will return to take up these measures passed by Senators.

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