More secrecy on tap in upcoming PSC review?

October 20, 2021

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

A powerful, legislatively controlled committee is scheduled Thursday to conduct annual reviews of the seven Public Service Commission members, though if recent history is a guide, the public won’t see any final written evaluations.

That’s because they haven’t been done in the past several years, despite being required by state law.

The written evaluations by the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) are important because state law requires that they be included in a PSC member’s record for “consideration if the member seeks reelection” by the full Legislature. The terms of three PSC members expire next year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

PSC members, who set utility rates for investor-owned gas and electric utilities, make $135,372 yearly; the chairman receives $137,331, according to the state salary database.

The PURC, which by law is made up of 10 members, including six lawmakers, exercises considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina, as The Nerve previously has revealed. For example, under state law, legislators can elect only PSC candidates found qualified and nominated by the PURC.

The law requires that the PURC’s individual reviews of PSC members be provided to the 170-member Legislature, though as The Nerve first revealed in January 2020, that hasn’t been done since the 2017 abandonment of the V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.

The PURC’s most-recent annual report to the Legislature, which covered fiscal year 2019-20 and was dated last Nov. 18, contains self-evaluations by PSC members serving that fiscal year but no written individual reviews by the PURC of those members, as required by law.

The Nerve in January this year again pointed out the violation of the law. On Monday, The Nerve sent written requests to House clerk Charles Reid and Senate clerk Jeff Gossett – the chambers’ top administrators – asking whether they received written evaluations of any PSC members for fiscal 2019-20, which ended on June 30, 2020.

In an email response today, Gossett said, “We do not have additional written evaluations beyond” the 2019-20 annual report. Reid didn’t respond by publication of this story.

Before the $9 billion V.C. Summer project was scrapped in July 2017, the PURC typically gave glowing, boilerplate annual reviews of PSC members, who over the years approved nine electric rate hikes for South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) customers for the nuclear 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, didn’t respond Tuesday to phone messages seeking comment on Thursday’s scheduled meeting.

The other legislative PURC members include Sens. Luke Rankin, R-Horry, and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; and Reps. Joseph Jefferson, D-Berkeley, and Jay West, R-Anderson. By law, Rankin, as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, and House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, control the PURC’s makeup.

Although state law mandates that the PURC have 10 members, the current panel stands at nine with the resignation of Dan Jones, PURC lawyer Heather Anderson said in an email response Tuesday to The Nerve, adding she didn’t know when his seat will be filled. Jones was listed as a PURC member in the committee’s fiscal 2019-20 report.

Under the law, a written draft of the PURC’s scheduled Thursday evaluation of individual PSC members must be provided to each member, and a final report can’t be submitted to the Legislature until each member has the “opportunity to be heard” before the PURC.

But former PSC member and chairman Swain Whitfield said in January’s Nerve story that written annual reviews stopped after the V.C. Summer project was abandoned in 2017. Whitfield, who was first elected to the PSC in 2008, said he was surprised when the PURC in January 2020 found him not qualified to run for another term.

The current PSC was not in charge when the nuclear project was officially abandoned. Whether the PURC purged the PSC to deflect attention away from lawmakers’ own failings in the project’s debacle has been a matter of debate.

Current PSC members include chairman Justin Williams (District 6), vice chairwoman Florence Belser (District 2), Stephen “Mike” Caston (District 3), Carolyn “Carolee” Williams (District 1), Thomas Ervin (District 4), Headen Thomas (District 5), and Delton Powers (District 7). Commissioners’ districts correspond to U.S. congressional districts.

The terms for Justin Williams, Belser and Ervin expire next June 30, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Anderson on Tuesday said no screening schedule has been set for those seats.

By law, PSC members must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a “background of substantial duration and an expertise” in at least one of eight areas: energy; telecommunications; consumer protection and advocacy; water and wastewater; finance, economics and statistics; accounting; engineering; or law.

Among other agenda items for Thursday’s PURC meeting are annual reviews of the PSC as an agency and the state Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), which over the years signed off on SCE&G rate increases approved by the PSC for the V.C. Summer project.

The PURC also plans to conduct an annual review of ORS executive director Nanette Edwards, who in July received an $86,381, or 48.3%, raise from the legislatively controlled state Agency Head Salary Commission, bringing her annual salary to $265,000, as The Nerve reported then.

Edwards has been with the agency since 2005, though she was not the executive director during the period when the rate hikes were authorized for the V.C. Summer project. The 48% pay hike comes with new oversight responsibilities involving state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which was a partner with SCE&G in the failed nuclear project, and the coordination of state broadband expansion, as approved by lawmakers this year.

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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