S.C. lawmakers ensure PSC incumbent retains seat – for now

May 11, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

On the last day of regular session Thursday, S.C. lawmakers in an unrecorded voice vote effectively approved a “do-over” election for a state Public Service Commission seat, allowing the incumbent to stay on months after his term expires and the opportunity to decide on matters related to the controversial V.C. Summer project.

Lawmakers also overwhelmingly elected a former legislator and circuit court judge to a four-year term on the seven-member PSC, which routinely raised electric rates for the failed nuclear project. Commissioners currently make $107,822 annually; the chairman receives $109,726.

The PSC has been asked to decide whether to allow South Carolina Electric & Gas to continue charging customers to pay down debt for the now-abandoned $9 billion nuclear project in Fairfield County, and whether to approve a proposed $14.6 billion merger between Cayce-based SCANA Corp., the parent company of SCE&G, and Virginia-based Dominion Energy.

Lawmakers in 2007 quietly approved a law, called the Base Load Review Act, which allowed the PSC to impose the SCE&G rate hikes for the V.C. Summer project. SCE&G customers collectively have paid more than $2 billion under the law for the project.

PSC candidates are screened and nominated for election in the General Assembly by a legislatively controlled committee called the State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC), which largely controls the regulation of utilities in South Carolina.

The Nerve reported earlier this week that the eight remaining candidates nominated by PURC for three open PSC seats included four-year incumbent Elliott Elam; former S.C. House member Thomas Ervin; and Florence Belser, a former PSC lawyer and current general counsel with the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which signed off on rate hikes for the V.C. Summer project.

In a joint session Thursday, the House and Senate easily elected Ervin, a former circuit court judge from Greenville who served in the House from 1980-84, over two other newcomers – David McCraw of Greer and William “Kevin” Newman of Inman – for the congressional District 4 seat.

Lawmakers by acclamation selected another newcomer, attorney Justin Williams of Columbia, for the District 6 seat after Belser, who was still a candidate as of Monday afternoon, dropped out before the election – a typical occurrence in elections in the Legislature when candidates believe they don’t have enough votes to win.

But in a move not seen in recent PSC elections, lawmakers in an unrecorded voice vote approved a motion by Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York, to reject the entire slate of three nominated candidates – Elam, who was first elected in May 2014; Bruce Cole of Forest Acres; and John McAllister of Columbia – for the District 2 seat. Then, in a recorded 110-43 vote, lawmakers rejected a motion by PURC member Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, to reconsider the first vote, House Journal records show.

Hutto told The Nerve he made his motion after “some House members were asking for a recorded vote” on Simrill’s motion, but that they “weren’t recognized.”

Elam’s four-year term ends on June 30, though Simrill and Hutto confirmed to The Nerve that under state law, Elam can continue serving in “holdover status” until another election for his seat in the Legislature. Lawmakers are set to reconvene over four days later this month and next to consider various conference committee reports, any budget vetoes and certain other matters, though Hutto said he was informed there isn’t enough time to complete the screening process by then for Elam’s seat.

Simrill said Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee and the PURC chairman, told him that it would be “probably August or September” until new candidates could be nominated by PURC. Simrill also said the Legislature, under part of a resolution adopted by both chambers, could return in the fall to fill the seat, or wait until it reconvenes in January for the next regular session.

The Nerve was unable to reach Alexander for comment after Thursday’s elections.

Under an amended version of a bill (S. 954) now in a legislative conference committee, the PSC couldn’t hold a public hearing before Nov. 1 on whether SCE&G customers should continue paying the V.C. Summer portion of their electric bills – about $27 monthly for a typical residential customer using 1,000 kilowatt hours – though the commission must issue a final ruling on the matter by Dec. 21.

Asked why he introduced the motion to reject the PSC candidate slate including Elam, Simrill told The Nerve that although Elam had the highest screening test score compared to the other two nominees, Elam recently voted to “give SCE&G yet another rate increase.” That vote wasn’t specifically tied to the V.C. Summer project, he said, though he noted it was in addition to the earlier approved rate hikes for the project.

“These PSC seats are far too important, have too much responsibility, to leave that to chance,” Simrill said. “In my opinion, the best move was to have PURC begin the process over.”

Hutto, however, said the election for Elam’s seat should have been allowed to proceed as planned, noting that Simrill’s motion “kinda said something was wrong about the process, and I don’t think anything was wrong with the process.”

Hutto, one of six legislators on the 10-member PURC, said in the wake of Thursday’s vote, Elam could decide to resign his seat, though he added he doesn’t expect that to happen. Elam, of Lexington, didn’t immediately return a written message Friday from The Nerve seeking comment.

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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