South Carolina lawmakers return after coronavirus pause

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The South Carolina Legislature returns to the capital Tuesday to take a second shot at resolving the upcoming state budget with a continuing resolution or take measures to deal with a projected $500 million decline in state tax revenues.

State lawmakers are also expected to decide what to do with Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric and water utility that's been under fire since mid-2017 for canceling a twin nuclear reactor project before completion. The utility has $3.6 billion of outstanding debt related to the failed project.

South Carolina lawmakers return to session Tuesday to decide how to deal with the state-owned Santee Cooper utility.

Lawmakers have yet to complete the budget process, which has been interrupted by state-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Legislature adjourned after a one-day session April 8 unable to reach consensus about whether to allow Santee Cooper to enter long-term contracts. The restrictive language was in a continuing resolution that passed the House but not the Senate.

"While the pandemic did not permit us to continue to meet as normal, the job of this Legislature will not be left unfinished," Senate President Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, and House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, said in a joint statement announcing resumption of the legislative session Tuesday.

"Now, more than ever, the needs of the citizens of this state must be addressed and met," they said. "While the state pursues reopening, we must stand poised to get back to work."

Lawmakers are expected to once again consider a continuing resolution to fund the upcoming state budget at current levels, as well as a resolution to adjourn that will allow for a special session to be called later to deal with spending adjustments.

State forecasters have projected that the state could see a decline of $507 million or 15.5% in revenues compared with earlier projections before the new coronavirus pandemic took hold.

As of Monday, there were 7,653 positive cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina and 331 people had died from it, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. On April 8, there were 2,552 positive cases and 63 deaths from the virus.

Peeler and Lucas have not spoken publicly about what agreement they may have reached concerning Santee Cooper, formally known as the South Carolina Public Service Authority.

During the regular session, lawmakers were in the process of considering three ways of dealing with the utility: selling it; having it managed by another entity; or allowing Santee Cooper to implement its own reform plan.

The April 8 continuing resolution passed by the House postponed consideration of whether to sell, reform or hire a manager for the authority until next year.

Because of the bifurcated legislative session, lawmakers now have two days to make decisions regarding state funding and Santee Cooper because the session is set to officially end Thursday.

Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican and proponent of selling Santee Cooper, declared a state of emergency on March 13 because of the virus.

On April 20, McMaster created accelerateSC, a COVID-19 advisory team helping him to recommend economic revitalization plans for South Carolina.

McMaster lifted the state’s “work-or-home” order on May 4, but it still allows for voluntary compliance by the elderly and others with compromised immune systems.

The governor has also begun allowing non-essential businesses to open.

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