Since 2017, much of the South Carolina General Assembly’s effort has been consumed by one thing: Santee Cooper, South Carolina’s power and water utility. Its fate is still up in the air, as lawmakers debate whether to reform it or sell it to NextEra Energy, a massive Florida-based energy company.
In case its proposal isn’t enough by itself, NextEra is pumping money and lobbyists into the Statehouse in hopes of pushing lawmakers to accept it. At the same time, the company is blocking attempts from lawmakers and the public to unearth the details of its political efforts in South Carolina. This dangerous combination of lobbying, political spending and opacity shows NextEra isn’t interested in honestly buying or running Santee Cooper, and the General Assembly must not fall for it.
Santee Cooper’s trouble hit the headlines in July 2017 when it announced that the V.C. Summer nuclear power plant project was canceled, meaning the utility had sunk billions into nuclear reactors that would never produce a watt of electricity.
Since then, Gov. Henry McMaster called for selling it, and NextEra energy emerged as the top candidate to buy it.
Legislative leaders have said they will reach a decision this year. Taking NextEra’s offer would mean selling Santee Cooper, which is currently owned by the state of South Carolina and managed by a state-appointed board of directors, to NextEra Energy.
This privatization would mean the two million people who are currently served by Santee Cooper would buy their electricity from NextEra. It would also privatize Santee Cooper’s $6.8 billion of debt and inject some money into the state’s pockets, but it wouldn’t privatize the utility’s liabilities. This detail could leave taxpayers on the hook for up to $2 billion, and might be enough to sink the deal.
However, NextEra has offered an incentive other than the merits of its offer. Since 2018, the energy company has spent heavily on donations to South Carolinian political groups. Its money has gone to both parties, including donations to legislative caucus committees and state parties.
NextEra’s efforts have also included lobbying. Since 2017, NextEra has hired 10 different lobbyists in South Carolina, costing the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All together, publicly available records show that between donations and lobbying NextEra has spent at least $413,956.45 on South Carolina politics since 2017. It didn’t spend a dime before then — why would it? NextEra is based in Florida and has no investments in South Carolina aside from a single solar farm in Aiken.
However, it's entirely possible these expenditures are only part of NextEra’s political effort in South Carolina. Multiple South Carolina political groups have come out in support for selling Santee Cooper. Some state senators believe NextEra might be funding these groups, but they’re dark money groups, so campaign finance laws don’t require them to disclose their donors.
Of course, all this spending and lobbying is meant to push legislators toward selling Santee Cooper. McMaster’s first call to sell the utility was in 2017, mere months before NextEra registered its first South Carolina lobbyist. NextEra hired eight lobbyists for the 2018 legislative session — for comparison, Santee Cooper had two — and made its first political donation in South Carolina that year.
This donation was made to the Senate Republican Caucus Committee. Five days later, NextEra executives briefed Republican senators about their planned proposal.
Nobody but our state legislators themselves know if NextEra’s political efforts will have an effect on their decision. NextEra thinks it will, though; why else would it spend that much money?
The fact a Fortune 500 company that is trying to buy a multi-billion dollar state utility can lobby and donate to legislators who are deciding whether to sell that same utility is absurd. It, combined with NextEra’s unwillingness to be open about its political efforts, should be all the General Assembly needs to stop the sale of Santee Cooper. If we can’t trust NextEra to buy Santee Cooper honestly, then we certainly can’t trust it to run it any better.