PSC seats in limbo again after legislatively controlled panel delays nominations

January 14, 2020

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

Another year, another convoluted legislative process for selecting six-figure state Public Service Commission members, who can greatly affect utility bills for many South Carolinians.

The State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) was scheduled to screen a total of 17 candidates over two days last week for four open seats on the seven-member PSC. Under state law, the six-legislator, 10-member PURC nominates PSC candidates for election in the General Assembly.

No more than three candidates can be nominated for a four-year seat. An election in the Legislature was tentatively set for Feb. 5.

But the PURC didn’t make any nominations for the four $132,071 seats, though the committee found six candidates qualified and rejected 10 others, including a longtime incumbent. Another candidate withdrew before his screening hearing, according to a PURC attorney.

This year’s elections could be a repeat of the PURC’s and Legislature’s recent handling of another open PSC seat, which, following nearly 18 months of delays, was filled last year with a former commission attorney after the incumbent – who had voted for electric rate hikes for the failed V.C. Summer nuclear project – withdrew from the race.

The PURC last week didn’t requalify incumbent Swain Whitfield, who joined the PSC in 2008 and was the commission chairman in July 2017 when then-South Carolina Electric & Gas and state-owned utility Santee Cooper abandoned the $9 billion nuclear project in Fairfield County.

Legislators in 2007 quietly passed a law that allowed the PSC to approve nine rate hikes from 2009-16 for residential customers of the former Cayce-based SCE&G, which was purchased by Virginia-based Dominion Energy after the V.C. Summer project collapsed.

Also not making the PURC’s qualified-candidates list last week was ex-lawmaker Ted Vick, a Pawleys Island Democrat who was a House member from 2004-14. The Nerve last week reported that former lawmaker Chip Limehouse, a Charleston Republican who was a House member from 1994-2016, withdrew from a separate race before his screening hearing.

Whitfield and Vick didn’t respond to messages Monday from The Nerve seeking comment. Neither did Sen. Thomas Alexander and Rep. Bill Sandifer, both Oconee County Republicans who are the PURC chairman and vice-chairman, respectively.

Contacted Monday, PURC member Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said the PURC’s decision not to qualify Whitfield, whose term ends June 30, “baffles me.” Hutto, a trial lawyer, noted he was in court last week and wasn’t present for the PURC votes.

Asked if the PURC wants to rid the PSC of members perceived to have favored the V.C. Summer project, Hutto replied, “That is not how I would view it,” though he didn’t elaborate.

Hutto said it was his understanding the PURC plans to reopen the screening process for the PSC District 1, 3, 5 and 7 seats; and that the 170-member General Assembly’s goal is to fill those seats this legislative session, which begins today.

In email responses Thursday to The Nerve, Heather Anderson, an attorney for the PURC, said the panel last week voted to “recommend the introduction of a resolution to extend the screening” for the four open seats, though she didn’t have “any information regarding a potential timeline” for more screening hearings.

The Legislature last February filled the District 2 seat currently held by former PSC attorney Florence Belser after incumbent Elliot Elam, a former consumer advocate for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, withdrew from the race. From September 2014 to October 2016, Elam voted to approve three rate hikes for then-SCE&G customers for the abandoned V.C. Summer project, as The Nerve previously reported.

That election process had dragged on since August 2017, when the PURC in a one-sentence written statement said only the screening for three open PSC seats, including the District 2 seat, had been “suspended until further notice,” as The Nerve reported then.

On the last day of regular session in May 2018, lawmakers in an unrecorded voice vote effectively approved a “do-over” election for the District 2 seat, rejecting the entire slate of three nominated candidates, including Elam.

Hutto said Monday he was informed the six candidates whom the PURC qualified last week will not have to reapply for their respective seats, and that candidates found not qualified, including Whitfield, can’t reapply this year.

Following are the six candidates who were found qualified, according to Anderson:

  • District 1 (Beaufort, Berkeley, Charleston, Colleton and Dorchester counties): George “Robert” Newman, Carolyn “Carolee” Williams;
  • District 3 (all of Abbeville, Anderson, Edgefield, Greenwood, Laurens, McCormick, Oconee, Pickens and Saluda counties; and parts of Newberry and Greenville counties): Stephen “Mike” Caston, Comer “Randy” Randall (the current PSC chairman);
  • District 5 (all of Cherokee, Chester, Fairfield, Kershaw, Lancaster, Lee, Union and York counties; and parts of Newberry, Spartanburg and Sumter counties): Headen Thomas;
  • District 7 (Chesterfield, Darlington, Dillon, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Marion and Marlboro counties): Thomas “Tee” Miller Jr.

Ten candidates were found not qualified, according to Anderson. They included, PURC records show:

  • District 1: Paul Gawrych, Alvin Johnson Jr., Lawrence Sullivan, Darryle Ware;
  • District 3: Santana Freeman;
  • District 5: Luther Hendrix; Whitfield;
  • District 7: John Atkinson, Bonnie Loomis, Vick.

District 5 candidate Stephen Thomas withdrew before his screening hearing, according to Anderson.

Anderson could not provide a breakdown of the PURC members’ votes on each candidate.

As The Nerve has previously reported, the PURC has considerable control over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina. Besides nominating PSC members, the committee is required to annually evaluate sitting commissioners – who typically received stellar marks in recent years, as The Nerve has reported – and in essence hires and oversees the executive director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which is supposed to represent ratepayers’ interests before the PSC.

The PURC also screens and qualifies candidates for Santee Cooper’s 12-member board of directors, who are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Under state law, the appointment of the three House and three Senate members 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.

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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