Dr. Oran Smith

The Santee Cooper Prophesy

August 25, 2017

Dr. Oran Smith

The year was 1995. Bill Clinton was President and David Beasley had just been elected Governor. Hootie and the Blowfish were climbing the chart with “Hold My Hand.”

That’s the year I had the honor of working on the book Reclaiming the Legacy: A New Public Policy Agenda for South Carolina. It was in that volume that selling Santee Cooper was proposed (twice). I raised the proposal in my chapter “Cutting Government Down to Size” and Dr. Douglas Houston of the University of Kansas laid out a comprehensive case in his section “Privatizing Santee Cooper.”

I put it this way:

Pressure for the sale of the publicly owned utility has been growing steadily in recent years, particularly in the wake of the revelation that Santee-Cooper has expended almost $2 million in rate-payer funds in support of charities and activist groups and has regularly awarded contracts without bids.

(The Legislative Audit Council had uncovered these facts in its February 1995 audit, reporting that Santee Cooper, a government agency, had made $1.7 million in contributions to state and local groups over four years.)

Among those receiving support from Santee Cooper back then? Groups who claimed to serve as watchdogs on the legislature. They obviously weren’t watching the Base Load Review Act of 2007, the legislation that made possible the sticking of ratepayers with billions in charges for an unfinished nuclear reactor or two.

Professor Houston looked even more like a prophet 22 years ago when he wrote that our current public power system “shifts the burden to the consumer whether he is willing or not.” Who would have guessed the burden would have been in the billions? Houston went on to write that “it does not make either economic or political sense to continue with a regime that in the long term would benefit virtually no one.”

That all but shouts “V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station.”

If Santee Cooper had been sold in 1996 or 1997 to a private utility, the V.C. Summer debacle may have unfolded exactly as it has with a private Santee Cooper electing to join SCANA in the Summer expansion. But with a private firm, we would have had a factor working for us that seemed to be in short supply among government agency officials: a fresh set of critical eyes.