High-profile PSC elections pushed back to last day of regular session

May 8, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

On Thursday – the last day of the General Assembly’s regular session and when most state government offices will be closed for a holiday – lawmakers are set to fill three open seats on the S.C. Public Service Commission, the state regulatory agency that routinely approved electric rate hikes for the failed V.C. Summer project.

A four-year incumbent, a former top lawyer with the PSC who currently works in a related agency, and a former S.C. House member are among the eight remaining candidates nominated by the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), a six-legislator, 10-member committee that largely controls the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.

The PSC positions, which are four-year terms, currently pay $107,822 annually; the chairman of the seven-member commission makes $109,726, according to the state salary database.

The rate hikes for the now-abandoned $9 billion nuclear project, which the PSC approved under a 2007 state law called the Base Load Review Act, now total about $27, or 18 percent, of a typical SCE&G residential customer’s monthly bill, based on 1,000 kilowatt hours used.

Thursday’s PSC elections – which is on Confederate Memorial Day, a state holiday – are set to begin at 11 a.m. in a joint session of the General Assembly. The elections were scheduled in a resolution introduced on April 24 by PURC’s three Senate members – PURC chairman Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee, and the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee chairman; Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who, as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, appoints five of PURC’s 10 members; and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

Since SCE&G and junior partner Santee Cooper announced last July 31 that the V.C. Summer project would be shuttered, the normally routine PSC election process has seen plenty of twists and turns. And it comes at a time when ratepayers have been paying closer attention to the PSC because of the nuclear project debacle.

On Aug. 11, PURC announced that seven candidates had applied for the three open seats in congressional districts 2, 4 and 6, including all three incumbents then – Elliott Elam, Elizabeth “Lib” Fleming and Nikiya “Nikki” Hall. The original screening schedule called for public hearings the week of Nov. 6, with an election in the General Assembly either on Jan. 31 or Feb. 7.

But in a one-sentence press release on Aug. 25, PURC said the process had been “suspended until further notice.” PURC gave no reason, though a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer later told The Nerve  that the screening was suspended to “allow the respective (special legislative investigatory committees on V.C. Summer) to do their work,” and that conducting the screening process simultaneously would be “redundant.”

The Nerve later reported that the two special investigatory committees, which have yet to issue a public report or summary of their findings, include the six legislative PURC members.

By early November, Hall, an attorney who had been on the PSC since 2010, had announced she was resigning the PSC to take a job with a Washington, D.C.-area utility. Gov. Henry McMaster named Columbia lawyer Robert Bockman as an interim commissioner; Bockman later decided to not run for a full term.

Although the PSC elections originally were scheduled for no later than early February, on Jan. 31, PURC’s three Senate members and several other Senate leaders, including Senate president pro tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, introduced a resolution to accept applications for the three open seats from Feb. 22 through March 5, effectively postponing the elections.

The House on Feb. 27 recalled the resolution from the Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, chaired by Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee and the PURC vice-chairman, and amended it the next day to extend the application period to March 26, which would push back the elections again, House records show. McMaster signed the amended resolution on March 12.

By the end of March, Fleming, an incumbent, had decided not to seek re-election, PURC records show. On April 24, PURC’s three Senate members introduced a resolution, which didn’t require the governor’s approval, setting the PSC elections for this Thursday.

PURC records show that the number of announced candidates grew from five as of Feb. 16 to 18 as of March 26. Four candidates withdrew by the time of PURC’s screening hearings on April 23 and 24; PURC nominated three candidates for each seat – the most allowed under state law – though one of the candidates later withdrew, leaving eight nominees, according to a committee lawyer.

The eight candidates, as of Monday afternoon, were as follows:

District 2

  • Elliott Elam Jr. of Lexington, a former consumer advocate at the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs who was first elected to the PSC in May 2014. He included with his application materials positive written performance reviews by PURC, which as The Nerve has reported, has been routinely done for commissioners in recent years.
  • Bruce Cole of Forest Acres, founder and managing director of Palmetto Realty Advisors.
  • John McAllister of Columbia, owner of John McAllister Realty Consulting LLC, and who served on the Citadel Board of Visitors from 1988-99.

District 4

  • Thomas Ervin of Greenville, a former circuit court judge elected by the Legislature and who earlier served in the S.C. House from 1980-84. Ervin also was an unsuccessful petition candidate for governor in 1984 and 2014. State law bans lawmakers from serving on the PSC while in office, and also for four years after leaving office or not filing for election to the General Assembly.
  • David McCraw of Greer, an unsuccessful state Senate candidate in 2016 who listed on his questionnaire that he is an owner of restaurants and bars, and also works in the real estate and financial advisor sectors.
  • William “Kevin” Newman of Inman, owner of a pool operator training business and an Inman City Council member. Newman ran for the PSC in 2014; on his questionnaire, he said he was one of two finalists for a commission seat, and that his S.C. House representative advised him then to withdraw from the race “when he knew I did not have enough votes to secure the commission.”

District 6

  • Florence Belser of Summerton, who worked with the PSC from 1993 to 2003, first as a staff attorney and later as executive assistant to the commission. Since 2004, she has been the general counsel with the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which signed off on the SCE&G rate hikes for the V.C. Summer project. During her tenures at PSC and ORS, Belser has worked on cases that “concerned all of the regulated utility industries,” according to her questionnaire.
  • Justin T. Williams of Columbia, an attorney with the Moore Taylor Law Firm who also is a U.S. Army Reserve judge advocate. He previously worked in the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and in several private law firms.

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

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