Ex-lawmaker withdraws as PSC candidate; legislators still control nominations, elections

January 7, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Former longtime state House member Chip Limehouse confirmed Monday he is no longer a candidate for a six-figure seat on the legislatively controlled S.C. Public Service Commission, though another ex-lawmaker is scheduled to be screened Wednesday for a separate PSC seat.

Limehouse, a Charleston County Republican who was a House member from 1994-2016, told The Nerve he withdrew from the District 1 race because he has “some other business endeavors” that would pose time conflicts if he were elected by the Legislature to the seven-member PSC – “not because of the issue” raised by The Nerve in an Oct. 15 story.

The Nerve reported then that state law allows ex-legislators to be elected to the PSC if they have been out of office for at least four years after they left the Legislature or from the general election filing deadline in the year that they didn’t seek re-election.

Former lawmaker Ted Vick, a Pawleys Island Democrat who served in the House from 2004-14, is scheduled to be screened Wednesday for the PSC District 7 seat. He didn’t respond to phone messages seeking comment for the October story or this story.

The only ex-legislator currently serving on the PSC is Thomas Ervin, a former circuit court judge from Greenville who served in the House from 1980-84 and who was easily elected in 2018 to his PSC seat over two other candidates.

The six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which nominates PSC candidates for election by the General Assembly, is scheduled to screen a total of 17 candidates today and Wednesday for four PSC seats. By law, the PURC can nominate no more than three candidates for a four-year seat.

The 170-member Legislature will fill the open PSC seats in an election tentatively set for Feb. 5.

Commissioners’ pay could be even more of a motivating factor in this year’s elections. Lawmakers for this fiscal year, which started July 1, hiked commissioners’ pay by more than 22% to $132,071. The annual salary for commission chairman Comer “Randy” Randall, who faces two challengers for the District 3 seat, is $133,982, according to the state salary database.

As The Nerve has previously reported, the PURC exerts considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. The PSC over the years approved nine rate hikes for then-South Carolina Electric & Gas customers under a quietly passed 2007 state law that provided steady funding for the failed $9 billion V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.

The PURC’s chairman and vice-chairman are state Sen. Thomas Alexander and Rep. Bill Sandifer, respectively, both Oconee County Republicans who head their respective chamber’s Labor, Commerce and Industry (LCI) Committee. By law, the number of legislators on the PURC is split evenly between the House and Senate, and the panel must include the House LCI and Senate Judiciary committee chairmen or their designees.

Under the law, House and Senate member appointments to the PURC are controlled, respectively, by House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who is a PURC member. Lucas and Rankin also by law control the appointments of the PURC’s four general public members.

Limehouse contended Monday he was “more than on solid ground” regarding his eligibility this year as a PSC candidate, though he also said the issue “needs to be resolved one way or the other.” He said he didn’t seek a legal opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office, and that he was informed PURC staff were “not allowed” to give a binding interpretation of the law.

Limehouse, who announced in 2015 he wasn’t running for re-election to his House seat, didn’t file for re-election by the March 2016 statutory deadline, which could be interpreted as making him ineligible to run for the PSC seat this year under the required four-year waiting period, given the tentatively scheduled Feb. 5 election.

Limehouse currently serves on the board of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which over the years funneled several billion dollars to large transportation projects in select counties.

In an email response Monday to The Nerve, Heather Anderson, a lawyer for the PURC, said Limehouse “did not provide a reason” in withdrawing his candidacy. Limehouse said he withdrew “probably a couple weeks” after he initially was interviewed by The Nerve for the October story.

John “Butch” Howard, the PSC District 1 incumbent, also initially declared his candidacy but later dropped out of that race, Anderson confirmed.

Limehouse said he is “probably going to run” for a PSC seat “in the future,” adding that at age 57, he believes he has a “couple more shots at it.” The commission is “one of the most important boards and commissions that govern South Carolina,” he said, noting he was a member of an ad-hoc committee in the 1990s that studied deregulating electricity providers in the state.

The PURC is scheduled today to screen six candidates for the District 1 seat. A total of 11 candidates are set to be interviewed Wednesday for the District 3, 5 and 7 seats. Ex-lawmaker Vick is the last scheduled candidate in the screening hearings.

Closed-door meetings, secret records

State law requires PSC candidates to have a “background of substantial duration and an expertise” in at least one of eight areas: energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater issues; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or the law. Vick and Limehouse listed themselves as property business executives while they were lawmakers, according to their legislative biographies.

But the PURC under the law can qualify candidates even if they have no background in any of the eight statutory areas as long as three-fourths of the committee agree to qualify them and provide “written justification of their decision.” And the PURC has no written criteria in making its final choices, as The Nerve reported in 2018.

Although PURC members openly screen candidates and take public votes on the nominations, the law also allows them to interview candidates and witnesses behind closed doors. Candidates are required to submit several forms in advance listing personal and financial information; Anderson cited a state law generally requiring those records to be kept secret.

“As with prior screenings, the Personal Data Questionnaire will be provided as an exhibit, with personal/confidential information redacted,” Anderson said in her email response. “The other forms will not become public, but there will be a transcript to show the information that was discussed publicly.”

As The Nerve previously has reported, there are a number of barriers under state law for citizens who want to speak at screening hearings. For example, those wishing to speak must provide a written statement of their proposed testimony to the PURC chairman no later than 48 hours before the hearing, and the PURC determines if they will be allowed to testify.

All testimony, including furnished documents, must be “submitted under oath” and can carry perjury penalties if determined to be “knowingly false,” under the law.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

Nerve stories are free to reprint and repost with permission by and credit to The Nerve.

 

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