By RICK BRUNDRETT
Of the 12 seats on the board governing state-owned utility Santee Cooper, two are vacant while seven members are serving past their expired terms.
A new law that purportedly will reform Santee Cooper – pushed by lawmakers after they couldn’t decide to sell the debt-burdened utility – doesn’t change the selection process for board members, though it allows the utility to offer them state health insurance benefits on top of their salaries.
By law, the governor appoints the 12 voting members of the board of directors. The new law, passed by the Legislature last week and signed by Gov. Henry McMaster on Tuesday, reduces their terms to four years from seven years and limits their tenure to three consecutive full terms.
But the new law didn’t change the provision allowing board members to continue serving past their terms until they are reappointed or a successor is chosen.
The new law also doesn’t lessen the power of the six legislator, 10-member committee known as the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which determines whether to qualify the governor’s appointees. If found qualified, candidates go before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate for final approval.
The Nerve repeatedly has pointed out that the PURC exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. Appointments to the PURC are controlled by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington.
Rankin is a member of the PURC, which is chaired by Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee. Lucas was the main sponsor of the House bill on Santee Cooper that was signed into law this week.
In April, McMaster, a Republican, nominated former U.S. attorney and ex-House member Peter McCoy of Charleston, also a Republican, as the next Santee Cooper board chairman – one of the two current vacant seats. The utility has been without a permanent chairman since the end of 2017 after then-chairman Leighton Lord resigned following a dispute with McMaster over the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project.
A PURC subcommittee initially interviewed McCoy last month. The full PURC is scheduled to screen him on June 28.
McMaster, who previously served as the state attorney general, nominated his predecessor, Charlie Condon of Charleston, as the Santee Cooper board chairman in 2018. But McMaster withdrew the nomination in 2019 after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the appointment. Dan Ray of Georgetown currently is the interim board chairman.
McMaster in 2019 nominated candidates for three other board seats, though none of them came to a vote of the full Senate, chamber journals show. It’s unclear whether the PURC screened them; state law requires the PURC to submit a candidate screening report to the Senate clerk, though no 2019 report is posted on the Legislature’s website.
The Nerve on Thursday asked PURC lawyer Heather Anderson if the PURC screened McMaster’s 2019 appointees but did not receive a response by publication of this story.
The Nerve also asked McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes why the governor, who has pushed to sell the utility, hasn’t recently made nominations – other than McCoy – for the expired and vacant board seats, and when he intends to name appointees. Symmes didn’t respond to the written questions.
The Second Congressional District board seat, previously held by Jack Wolfe of Chapin, has been vacant since June 2018, Santee Cooper records show.
Following is a list of the current board members who have been serving past their terms and when their terms expired, according to Secretary of State records:
- William Finn of Mt. Pleasant, 1st Congressional District: 5/19/20
- Kristofer Clark of Easley, 3rd Congressional District: 5/19/19
- Barry Wynn of Spartanburg, 4th Congressional District: 5/19/21
- John Calhoun Land IV of Manning, 6th Congressional District: 5/19/20
- Merrell Floyd of Conway, 7th Congressional District: 5/19/19
- Stephen Mudge of Clemson, at-large: 5/19/19
- Peggy Pinnell of Moncks Corner, Berkeley County: 5/19/21
The new law requires that board members have at least a bachelor’s degree and a “background of substantial duration and an expertise” in at least one of the following areas: energy; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or law.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore told The Nerve for an April story that in 1988, the Santee Cooper Advisory Board, led by the governor, set the current annual compensation levels at $24,000 for the board chairman and $10,000 for other board members. In addition, board members are paid $75 for each special board meeting and Central-Santee Cooper Executive Committee meeting, up to a $2,000 annual cap, she said.
The new law requires that the state Agency Head Salary Commission, chaired by Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, approve pay and benefits for board members and the utility’s chief executive officer. Current president and CEO Mark Bonsall’s total compensation this year is $1,118,241.98, including a $1.1 million salary and $18,241.98 in other benefits, Gore said in a written response today to The Nerve.
Gore added that Bonsall also is eligible for up to $250,000 in “additional incentive compensation based on performance measures established” by the board.
The Nerve last year revealed that some Santee Cooper and state Ports Authority board members were receiving state health insurance benefits, though they weren’t eligible because their positions are part-time.
Under the new law, Santee Cooper can, “at its expense,” offer health insurance benefits to board members through the “State insurance plan or otherwise.” In her written response today, Gore said that benefit “will be offered as soon as possible, but there are some details to finalize.”
Santee Cooper provides electricity to about 2 million residents statewide directly and indirectly through the state’s 20 electric cooperatives.
Bryce Fiedler, a policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, contributed to this story. Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.
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