The senators discussed a resolution to have a state agency begin accepting bids to sell the utility. But that resolution will likely change before a final vote after lawmakers also discuss having an outside company manage Santee Cooper or just changing the management at the utility, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said.
Massey said he expects the debate to take up much of the three day Senate session this week and could even last into next week. But Massey said senators need to decide something before the regular session adjourns May 9.
"That really would be a catastrophic result if we did nothing on this," the Edgefield Republican said.
Santee Cooper was created to help bring power to destitute parts of South Carolina during the Great Depression. It is intertwined with the culture of the state, running two huge manmade lakes and doing whatever it can to help bring industry to rural areas. The utility also provides 60% of its power to electric cooperatives, which can break that contract if the utility is sold.
But Santee Cooper is roughly $8 billion in debt, with about half of it coming from its minority stake in two nuclear power plants that were never finished. South Carolina Electric & Gas owned the majority stake and was bought out last year by Dominion Energy of Virginia.
If the Senate doesn't act now, Massey said he thinks the House and governor will step in and choose a buyer without the Senate's input and then put massive pressure on the Senate to go along with their decision no matter what.
"At that point, I don't think we make a good policy decision. We make a political decision," Massey said.
The Senate needs to at least go ahead and get bids to see what the state might get for Santee Cooper, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman said.
"We have to get some credible offers before we know what direction we are going in," the Florence Republican said. "Otherwise, we are shooting in the dark on whether we are going to sell it, manage it, whatever."
Even some of the people who have been the most cautious about selling Santee Cooper said something needs to be done.
"I'm not a defender of the status quo. Change is a comin'," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Luke Rankin, a Republican from Myrtle Beach.
Sen. Gerald Malloy said his colleagues need as much information as they can to make the best decision and the debate shouldn't be rushed. He said his mind has changed as he has learned more from senators who were more immersed in the debate over the past 18 months.
"I was in the beginning for not selling it at all. It's a state treasure. It's a state asset. Then I started listening to what is going on- well maybe we need to manage it," the Hartsville Democrat said.
Massey spoke for more than two hours Tuesday, joking several times that he knew senators were getting tired of hearing him. No action was taken. But Massey said it will just get more painful the longer they wait to take action.
"I don't want to see many of you now," Massey said. "I sure don't want to see you in October."
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