Lawmaker-controlled panel violates state law – again

January 6, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

A legislatively controlled committee has once again violated a state law requiring that it provide the General Assembly with written individual evaluations of S.C. Public Service Commission members.

The seven-member PSC’s authority includes setting utility rates for investor-owned gas and electric utilities. The PSC is holding additional public hearings this week on a proposed nearly 8% electric rate hike for Dominion Energy customers – after The Nerve raised questions about the public-comment process.

State law requires that the six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) “conduct an annual performance review of each member of the (PSC) commission, which must be submitted to the General Assembly.”

Lawmakers elect PSC candidates nominated by the PURC and therefore have final accountability for their appointments. PSC members make at least $132,071 annually, according to the state salary database.

Under the law, a draft of the PURC’s performance review has to be provided in advance to each PSC member, and that a final report can’t be submitted to the Legislature until each member has the “opportunity to be heard” before the PURC.

The PURC’s annual report for fiscal 2019-20 to the General Assembly, which was dated Nov. 18 and posted recently on the Legislature’s website, contains self-evaluations by PSC members but no written individual reviews by the PURC of those members, as required by law.

The reviews are important because they “must be made a part of the member’s record for consideration if the member seeks reelection” to the PSC, according to the law. Four of the seven PSC members who were serving last fiscal year, which ended June 30, are no longer on the commission; lawmakers in September elected four newcomers.

The Nerve in January 2020 first revealed that the PURC in recent years had violated state law by not providing individual performance reviews of PSC members to the General Assembly, pointing out that no individual reviews were provided after the V.C. Summer nuclear project collapsed in 2017.

Before the $9 billion project was abandoned, the PURC typically gave glowing, boilerplate annual reviews of PSC members, who over the years approved nine electric rate hikes for the project. The rate hikes were made possible by a 2007 law that legislators quietly passed.

PURC chairman Sen. Thomas Alexander and vice chairman Rep. Bill Sandifer, both Oconee County Republicans who head their respective chamber’s Labor, Commerce and Industry Committee, did not respond Tuesday to phone messages from The Nerve seeking comment

PURC attorney Heather Anderson didn’t respond Monday to written questions.

Insider’s view

Contacted Tuesday by The Nerve, former longtime PSC member Swain Whitfield, who was first elected in 2008, said the PURC in the first nine years of his tenure provided to lawmakers annual written reviews of him and other commissioners.

PURC members never met with him in person during that time to discuss his performance, he said, though he noted they complied then with the law by forwarding their written evaluation drafts to him in advance for review.

The written annual reviews stopped after the 2017 abandonment of the V.C. Summer project in Fairfield County, said Whitfield, whose PSC district covers all of Fairfield County, and all or parts of 10 other counties. In October 2019, the PURC for the first time met with him and other commissioners privately to review their annual performance, he said.

“We were told it was going to be unpleasant, and it was unpleasant,” he recalled.

Whitfield said the PURC didn’t provide him with a follow-up written evaluation, though he asked in writing for it, noting it was supposed to be part of his official record when he ran for another four-year term, under state law.

Still, Whitfield, a former PSC chairman, said he was surprised last January when the PURC without explanation found him not qualified to run for another term.

“Nothing happened in that October (2019) evaluation to lead me to believe that I was not going to make it through screening,” adding the PURC found in his previous three elections found that he had “resounding qualifications.”

After the Sept. 23 vote in the Legislature on his replacement, Whitfield said he moved out of his PSC office the same day and was no longer on the public payroll. The following week, the PURC interviewed him and the three other ex-incumbents behind closed doors, though he described his session as “clearly an exit interview,” not an annual performance evaluation.

Although state law requires it, the PURC included no individual written evaluations of any PSC commissioners in its latest annual report submitted to the Legislature. The report includes performance questionnaires filled out by commissioners who were serving last fiscal year: ex-incumbents Whitfield, John “Butch” Howard, Comer “Randy” Randall and G. O’Neal Hamilton; and current commissioners Florence Belser, Thomas Ervin and Justin Williams.

PURC’s powers

As The Nerve has previously revealed, the PURC exercises considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. For example, only candidates found qualified and nominated by the PURC can be elected by the full Legislature.

The PURC also under state law:

  • Essentially hires and annually reviews the performance of the executive director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), which over the years signed off on South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) rate increases approved by the PSC for the V.C. Summer project.
  • Qualifies governor-appointed candidates to the 12-member board overseeing state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which was a partner with then-SCE&G in the V.C. Summer project.

Under state law, the makeup of the PURC is controlled by House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, who is a PURC member. The PURC is comprised of three House members, three senators and four members of the general public.

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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