BRACK: What really needs to happen with General Assembly’s nuclear mess

By Andy Brack, editor and publisher | Until state legislators go through the five stages of grief over the $9 billion failure of building two nuclear reactors, they might just screw up things worse.

It’s easy to see where they are, so far, six months after the announcement by Santee Cooper and SCANA that the project in Fairfield County wouldn’t get off the ground, despite ratepayers paying more for power over the last 10 years.

First is the denial stage – that it couldn’t happen here. Evidence of this is the prodigious finger-pointing as everybody and his brother look for scapegoats.

Next comes anger. There’s still a lot of anger bubbling inside the capitol and among voters who are irritated by the waste of what’s happened. Anger comes in many forms, but often is seen in unrealistic calls to make everything better and send lots of people to jail. And politicians, scared for their hides, are shamelessly exploiting anger on a daily basis.

The third stage is bargaining, in which some lawmakers are rushing pell-mell to pass bills that try to fix problems in an attempt to negotiate away the pain caused by the failure. Slow down.

Fourth is depression. Often when one reaches this part of the grieving process, it reflects how a problem seems overwhelming and hard to cope with. But it also may start the process of trying to deal with a loss realistically, instead of development of quick responses fueled by anger.

Finally, there’s acceptance. It involves learning to live with what happened and being smart about dealing with it.

Folks, the state legislature isn’t there yet. Why? Because it hasn’t accepted responsibility that it is complicit in the chain of events that created a $9 billion eyesore that likely will become an enduring monument to failure and futility.

What the legislature needs to do now, more than rushing to pass legislation to fix what’s happened, is to apologize and take responsibility for the whole mess. Had legislators not passed the Base Load Review Act a decade ago, utilities wouldn’t have been able to charge ratepayers in advance to pay for the nuclear project.

This is not to let SCANA and Santee Cooper off the hook for cost overruns and apparent all-around mismanagement of the V.C. Summer construction project, but it’s to emphasize that the General Assembly needs to clean up its own house on the nuclear mess before resorting to solutions that could actually make things even worse.

The nuclear debacle is yet another South Carolina example of how the legislature sometimes creates a mess thanks to the Law of Unintended Consequences. This holds that if elected officials don’t do their homework and rush in with solutions, bad things may happen just as easily as the rosy scenarios they paint when patting themselves on the back.

For example, just look at the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive passed about 20 years ago. It was a response to try to keep experienced teachers in the classroom to deal with a shortage. Unfortunately, the courts said it was not fair to offer the program to only teachers. Participation exploded, meaning state employees technically retired with retirement pay put into a special account. But they also draw regular pay. Unfortunately, the legislature didn’t fully fund the program and that, along with the Great Recession and investment blunders, led to a $20 billion hole in the state pension system from which South Carolina is still recovering.

Second example: Act 388, the Great Property Tax Swindle. About a decade ago, the smart guys in Columbia wanted to reduce the cost of property taxes on homeowners. They decided to cut property taxes and replace the revenue with a sales tax increase. But that strategy cut flexibility for funding schools at the local level and it didn’t cut taxes on commercial and rental properties. Inequities grew. The property tax, which was a stable funding source for government, grew more volatile.

Now we’re at a policy crossroads with the unintended fallout of a failed project thanks to something lawmakers did 10 years ago. Before we move forward too quickly, lawmakers need to accept responsibility, slow down, develop realistic ideas stemming from expert analysis and figure out reasonable, informed solutions. To keep politicking about it isn’t in anyone’s best long-term interest.

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One Comment

  1. Andy,

    One of the most difficult aspects of being a trustee as legislators are, is to translate the decision onto the revenue forecasts and the general fund impacts. It is not easy but at the very least those who are in the leadership role need to be open to getting this information.

    Fred Palm