S Carolina's state-owned utility survives as public company

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South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, asks fellow House members to accept a compromise bill that would reform state-owned utility Santee Cooper on Tuesday, June 8, 2021, in Columbia, South Carolina. The bill unanimously passed the House and Senate without a provision to sell Santee Cooper. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)

COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina’s state-owned utility appears to have survived four years of turmoil to remain public after the South Carolina House and Senate both unanimously approved an overhaul bill Tuesday that does not include its sale to a private company.

Santee Cooper's future has been uncertain since July 2017, when construction of a pair of nuclear reactors in which the utility was a minority partner stopped before completion, leaving the company billions of dollars in debt.

Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and several powerful legislators, especially in the House, almost immediately demanded the sale of Santee Cooper to a private company, saying South Carolina should not be in the power business.

But there were powerful allies on the other side who recalled how the founding of Santee Cooper as a public utility during the Great Depression brought power to wide swaths of rural South Carolina. They also noted the state-owned company's willingness to do whatever top officials asked to bring big industry to the state.

Company officials asked lawmakers for time to reform and come up with a plan to reduce their debt.

The Santee Cooper supporters won. McMaster said he wants to read it before deciding whether to sign it, but his action is mostly symbolic, as the 111-0 House vote and 43-0 Senate vote are veto-proof.

“This product is one of negotiation,” said Sen. Luke Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach. "It’s one of everybody trying, I think in good faith, to make Santee Cooper what it should be and to move past the decision that it made — that we as a state made — to go nuclear."

The bill does shake up Santee Cooper's leadership. Over the next four years, it ousts nine of the 10 members on the utility's board, all of whom were serving before the nuclear reactors were abandoned by majority partner South Carolina Electric & Gas in 2017. It also restricts severance packages for any executives who lose their jobs.