Fate of lower SCE&G bills now in judge's hands

Fate of lower SCE&G bills now in judge's hands

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Whether or not your SCE&G power bill will be lower next month is a decision now solely in a judge's hands.

Earlier this summer, angered by last summer's sudden abandonment of a multi-billion dollar nuclear reactor project in Fairfield County, lawmakers in both the South Carolina House of Representatives and Senate overwhelmingly passed a measure to temporarily lower SCE&G bills by 14.8 percent, until the Public Service Commission can decide on a fair and permanent rate for SCE&G customers.

After the measure became law, SCE&G filed a motion for injunction and has asked a federal court judge, Judge J. Michelle Childs, to strike down what it believes is an unconstitutional law passed by the legislature.

During a two-day hearing that began on Monday, roughly a dozen attorneys sparred.

Attorneys for SCE&G argued the company's constitutional rights were violated when the company was unfairly "targeted" by a legislative act that will cause SCE&G "irreparable harm."

"The General Assembly changed the rules of the game after the game has been played," said one of SCE&G's attorneys, David Balser, in his opening statement.

The rate reduction passed by lawmakers would cost SCE&G about $270 million.

On the other side of the courtroom, attorneys for Senate President Hugh Leatherman and Speaker of the House Jay Lucas offered Judge Childs a much different argument and said SCE&G is no longer entitled to the premium rates because the nuclear reactor project was terminated last summer.

"SCE&G cries wolf too loudly," said Robert Tyson, Lucas' attorney, on Monday. "They cry, 'Woe is me!'"

On Tuesday, testimony shifted to the "irreparable harm" SCE&G must show. Through testimony from a couple expert witnesses who had diverse backgrounds in finance, SCE&G tried to illustrate the irreparable harm the company has already suffered or will suffer. Those witnesses said the rate cut could cause SCANA's stock price to plummet, could alter the strategy of the company, could tank investor confidence, and could cause Dominion—the company seeking purchase of SCE&G—to walk away from the deal.

"Implementation…would have been extremely negative impact on the company," one witness testified.

On the other hand, attorneys with the defense summarized that testimony as "speculation," and when the defense called its first witness Tuesday—another financial expert—she painted a very different picture and said her calculations strongly suggest SCE&G could stomach the temporary rate cut financially.

In closing arguments, lawmakers' attorneys argued SCE&G failed to meet the required burden of proof, the temporary rate cut is a "measured and reasonable approach," and market uncertainty doesn't equate to "irreparable harm."

"The law, as written, is valid," Tyson argued.

Judge Childs told the parties to expect an order "soon" and by August 7, which is the start of SCE&G's next billing cycle. That's when the reduced rate would take effect.

Copyright 2018 WIS. All rights reserved.