State law violated: PURC fails to submit annual reviews of PSC members
By Rick Brundrett
A legislatively controlled committee violated state law in recent years by not giving the General Assembly annual performance reviews of individual S.C. Public Service Commission members, who set utility rates for residents and businesses statewide, a review by The Nerve found.
Timing could be everything.
Before the V.C. Summer nuclear project collapsed in July 2017, the six-legislator, 10-member State Regulation of Public Utilities Review Committee (PURC) – which largely controls the seven-member PSC – typically gave glowing annual reviews of PSC members, who routinely approved rate hikes for the $9 billion project.
In the wake of the project’s failure, however, the PURC has submitted no individual performance evaluations of PSC members to the Legislature – in violation of state law. Lawmakers elect PSC candidates nominated by the PURC and therefore have final accountability for the appointments.
Yet despite not having the performance reviews and the V.C Summer debacle, the 170-member General Assembly increased PSC members’ yearly pay by more than 22 percent to $132,071 for this fiscal year, which started July 1. The commission chairman makes $133,982.
The PURC’s failure to submit annual performance reviews to the Legislature covering the last three fiscal years occurred after The Nerve in 2014 and 2018 revealed that the PURC in prior years typically gave cut-and-paste, complimentary evaluations.
The PSC approved nine electric rate hikes from 2009 through 2016 for then-South Carolina Electric & Gas customers for the unfinished V.C. Summer project in Fairfield County, allowing the Cayce-based utility, which later was acquired by Virginia-based Dominion Energy, to rake in more than $2 billion through 2018. The rate increases were made possible under a 2007 law that legislators quietly passed.
The PURC has considerable authority over the regulation of utilities in South Carolina, as The Nerve has previously reported. House speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Luke Rankin, R-Horry, control the 10 appointments to the PURC, chaired by Sen. Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee.
The other five legislative members of the PURC are Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, who is the vice-chairman; Sens. Rankin and Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg; and Reps. Mike Forrester, R-Spartanburg, and David Mack, D-Charleston.
Under state law, the PURC:
— Nominates no more than three candidates for each PSC seat for election in the Legislature. Last week, The Nerve reported that an election tentatively set for Feb. 5 was put on hold after the PURC failed to nominate any candidates for the District 1, 3, 5 and 7 PSC seats.
— Qualifies governor-appointed candidates to the 12-member board overseeing state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which was a partner with then-SCE&G in the V.C. Summer project, and could be sold or privately managed under proposals secretly under consideration by the state Department of Administration.
— Essentially hires and annually reviews the performance of the executive director of the state Office of Regulatory Staff, which over the years signed off on rate increases approved by the PSC for the V.C Summer project.
State law also requires the PURC to “conduct an annual performance review of each member of the (Public Service) commission, which must be submitted to the General Assembly.” Under the law, the reviews are based in part on confidential surveys given to parties appearing before the PSC; and the final evaluations “must be made a part of the member’s record for consideration if the member seeks reelection to the commission.”
But no written reviews of individual PSC members were submitted to the Legislature covering fiscal years 2017 through last year, The Nerve’s latest review found. Heather Anderson, a staff attorney for the PURC, told The Nerve in 2018 that she didn’t know why the 2017 evaluations were not done, referring questions to Sen. Alexander and Rep. Sandifer.
Asked for a copy of the 2019 review, Anderson referred The Nerve to the PURC’s link on the Legislature’s website. But although the site contains a description of the evaluation process and questionnaires submitted last year by PSC members, there are no individual performance reviews of the commissioners by the PURC for fiscal years 2017 through last year. The website contains individual performance reviews for fiscal years 2013 through 2016.
Anderson didn’t respond to The Nerve’s follow-up questions. As they did in 2018, Alexander and Sandifer didn’t respond to written questions seeking comment.
The Nerve formally asked Senate clerk Jeff Gossett and House clerk Charles Reid for copies of the 2018 and 2019 PURC reports under the state Freedom of Information Act. In an email, Gossett replied, “I understand that no report was done in 2018,” and referred The Nerve to the Legislature’s website for other PURC records. He didn’t respond to follow-up questions about the absence of the 2019 report.
Richard Pearce, a staff attorney for the House clerk, said in his email response the Legislature’s website “reflects the documents we have on hand,” and that the Clerk’s Office “did not receive a 2018 report” from the PURC.
Pearce didn’t respond to a follow-up question about whether Reid, as the House’s chief administrator, will instruct the PURC to comply with state law on submitting the individual performance reports to the Legislature.
Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.