S.C. House Creates New Office

Voted in favor of a consumer advocate for energy

Patrick Gentry
January 24, 2018 - 2:47 pm
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Members of the South Carolina House voted Tuesday to create a new position that would advocate for consumers in issues involving power utilities.

The proposed Utilities Consumer Advocate would be in the Attorney General’s Office under a new bill approved 114-1 in the House. Supporters say the new office would partially replace the functions of the current Office of Regulatory Staff, which acts as a neutral analyst in utility issues that appear before state regulators.

“We want to ensure that our constituents believe that this particular consumer advocate… is 100 percent on their side, fighting day-in and day-out for their best interest,” State Rep. Russell Ott, D-St. Matthews, said on the House floor.

The measure will go to the Senate after another procedural vote on Wednesday.

ORS has come under heavy criticism for not warning the public about the increasingly-tenuous position of an ill-fated nuclear construction project, even as work fell years behind schedule and billions over budget. The agency recommended each of utility South Carolina Electric & Gas’s eventual rate increases, although it usually negotiated down the increase amount first.

Outgoing ORS director Dukes Scott admitted the agency was torn between its seemingly contradictory missions to represent both consumer and utility interests in front of the Public Service Commission, which gives the final approval for utility actions in South Carolina.

“What should happen is ORS works for the consumer interest, period,” Scott told South Carolina Radio Network last month. “The utilities are capable of representing their own interests (to the Public Service Commission).”

However, the House proposal spins off that function into the new Advocate office. It keeps ORS intact to continue offering analysis of the economic impacts of potential rate decisions and how they would impact a utility’s services. The Advocate would also be able to access documents subpoenaed by ORS as part of the approval process.

“What we’re going to have is an agency who is no longer charged with looking at the financial stability of an industry,” State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia, said. “And we’re going to have a consumer advocate, in addition, advocating for the consumer.”

The bill’s lone opponent said he thought ORS should be eliminated entirely. “Really we’re just reshuffling deck chairs on a sinking ship,” State Rep. Jonathon Hill said. “And I have a problem with that.”

In a statement, S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said the bill prevents customers “from experiencing future unfounded and deceitful utility rate hikes.”

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