COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The plan was for South Carolina lawmakers to meet Wednesday, get their business done in an hour or two and head home until at least the summer, when hopefully the coronavirus crisis was past.
Instead, that old entanglement Santee Cooper popped up again. The typical annoyance between the House and Senate turned to anger. Sniping statements and speeches were exchanged.
And now at least one of the chambers will have to return before July 1 and pass a bill allowing the state to continue operating without a budget or South Carolina will shut down.
“Today’s vote in the Senate is a shameless abdication of leadership,” House Speaker Jay Lucas texted even before the final vote was cast in the Senate to change the continuing resolution, or CR, so the Legislature’s work would not be done Wednesday.
Senate President Harvey Peeler sent an email to his colleagues Thursday saying it is up to the House to finish the job. Then he posted to Twitter on Friday.
“South Carolina will be better served if we spend more time on the CR and less time on the PR,” Peeler posted.
A letter Thursday could raise the stakes higher. House leaders demanded Santee Cooper turn over all emails its employees and board members sent in the past 45 days to not just House members, but senators too. The letter also asks for telephone, cellphone and text records between Santee Cooper and all legislators.
Wednesday’s unfinished business leaves lawmakers with several choices. Pass nothing and let the state shut down seems inconceivable. The likeliest scenario is the House returns. It can pass what the Senate passed or change it again and put the ball back in the Senate’s court. Or both sides could let the May 14 adjournment date pass and leave it to the governor to call a special session.
At issue is the fate of Santee Cooper. Lawmakers have been studying whether to sell or reform the state-owned utility since it took on $4 billion in debt in the last decade for a minority stake in a pair of nuclear reactors that never generated power.
The bill to allow state government to keep spending included a section to extend the law allowing the state to sell or reform the utility to be extended into 2021. House leaders said Senate leaders agreed to a provision preventing Santee Cooper from entering into any contracts over a year in length, but suddenly that became an issue 36 hours before Wednesday’s session.
“They had a few senators and I emphasize a few that would not go along with that and that would hold it up,” said Republican Rep. Murrell Smith of Sumter.
The House then passed the bill and adjourned in a little over an hour. Several senators were offended, saying the House intentionally put them in a corner with the unnecessary provision during a crisis so they would look bad if they opposed the emergency proposal.
“This is politics at its worst. Look around. You have gloves on. You have masks on. We’re being asked to take our masks down and swallow something that they tweaked a little bit then left,” said Republican Sen. Luke Rankin of Horry County.
Things then got more tense. The Senate voted to alter the bill, requiring Santee Cooper to get permission from the governor, speaker, Senate president and budget committee chairmen from both chambers before signing contracts of a year or more.
Four of the most powerful House members then sent statements blasting senators.
“The Senate chose to protect a rogue state agency rather than teachers and first responders today,” Smith said.
After the Senate adjourned, Majority Leader Shane Massey was read the statements. As he slathered his hands in sanitizer, he shook his head a little and said he wasn’t going to comment.
The back and forth left senators who aren’t as passionate about Santee Cooper perplexed.
“Santee Cooper cannot be let off the hook on this. The House can’t continue to do these type of things. I’m offended by the timing,” said Republican Sen. Sean Bennett of Summerville.