Legislative Energy “Reforms” Preserve Lawmakers’ Power
Over the past couple of weeks the House and Senate energy committees have begun drafting policy proposals to amend the energy regulatory structure. However, those proposals are premature as neither committee has reached an official consensus on the problems that led to the V.C. Summer fiasco. More importantly, the proposed legislation would not bring true reform or dissolve the legislative monopoly over the energy industry. Below are the primary takeaways from these meetings.
1. Citizens are beginning to change the narrative on PURC.
During this week’s House energy committee meeting, lawmakers finally acknowledged the public pressure they are receiving regarding the role of the Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) in the failed nuclear project. While the House speaker and Senate president pro tem have not removed the six legislative PURC members from the special energy committees, the House committee discussed renaming the PURC – for optics.
They also acknowledged PURC’s ultimate authority over the energy regulatory structure and proposed tweaking the composition of the PURC.
One of their proposed changes would be to increase the number of citizens on the PURC. However, Rep. Bill Sandifer (and longtime PURC member) suggested that a layperson may not “understand the issues coming before us sufficiently to present them.”
He also advocated keeping the PURC under greater legislative control – specifically under the control of legislative leaders: “Since we are dealing with a very, very difficult topic, the people who are appointed from the legislative positions need to have the majority of the votes so that we can discuss these issues with knowledge of what they are and what the ramifications might be.”
While the proposed changes to PURC would not reduce legislative control in any meaningful way, they – along with the committee discussion – are proof that citizens who are demanding answers from their lawmakers are impacting the narrative.
2. Neither committee has issued a report on the findings of their investigations.
These special legislative committees were called to investigate what went wrong with the V.C. Summer nuclear project that left ratepayers saddled with billions of dollars of debt. However, both the House and Senate committees have moved on to policy proposals without ever voting on an official report of their findings from the investigation.
Before any action is recommended, the public deserves a full report, including the evidence supporting their conclusions and the rationale for any proposed changes to the laws. The hearings were supposed to be for the benefit of the public, not lawmakers themselves. Legislators cannot know what changes are needed without pinpointing where the problems exist, and citizens cannot influence the reshaping of the regulatory structure when the intent of their legislators is unclear.
3. Their proposed “reforms” keep the power in the hands of lawmakers.
The proposed changes by both committees are vague and unstructured at this point. House staff has been instructed to draft legislation tweaking the governance structure of the Public Service Commission (PSC), the Office of Regulatory Staff (ORS), PURC, and Santee Cooper, and potentially creating a new consumer advocate separate from the ORS. The House committee also directed their staff to create legislation to prohibit SCE&G from collecting any further revenue for nuclear plant costs.
However, none of these changes demonstrates a will to enact true reform. Reform starts with eliminating the legislative stranglehold on the energy industry, and the committees’ proposed changes simply shifted things around while preserving their own power. There was no talk of eliminating the PURC, replacing legislative elections for PSC members with appointments by the governor, or allowing the governor to fire Santee Cooper directors. Any of these changes would have shifted the balance of power back toward the citizens, but none of these issues was even discussed.
The biggest concession that was mentioned was to allow the governor to appoint six private citizens that would comprise half the PURC. This was presented as a way to level the playing field between citizens and lawmakers, but this is flawed thinking. Citizens don’t share the power with their lawmakers: the power belongs to the citizens to begin with. Legislators are public servants enacting the will of the people, not telling the people what they must settle for. Moreover, many gubernatorial appointments are actually controlled by the legislature by means of the confirmation process, and it was unclear how lawmakers plan for the governor’s proposed appointments to be confirmed.
The primary takeaway is that lawmakers are intent on protecting their own power. However, they are feeling the pressure from constituents and ratepayers demanding answers for the legislative decisions and oversight (or lack thereof) that led to the project’s failure. Lawmakers who defend their power monopoly cannot escape the blame for its failure, and citizens should settle for nothing less than complete elimination of the legislative stranglehold on the energy industry.