- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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June 8

Aiken Standard on the future of solar energy in South Carolina:

With President Donald Trump’s recent announcement the U.S. would pull out of an international climate change agreement, it’s comforting to know that South Carolinians will still bask in the sunlight as the future of solar energy appears vibrant.



Separate announcements yesterday - one concerning economic development and the other an opportunity for solar billing credits - were causes for celebration.

Adger Solar, a clean energy development company, announced Thursday it plans to deliver a new solar facility off Edgefield Highway about 3 miles north of I-20. It represents a $100 million investment while providing clean energy to 15,000 homes.

Once considered cost prohibitive and even gimmicky to some, solar power is gaining more acceptance in the mainstream. Demand is rising, making solar more marketable. Evidence of that can be seen in remarks from company officials.

“Power from this project will be sold for under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, one of the lowest prices for solar seen yet in the state,” said William Moore, principal of Adger Solar. “Because this price is fixed over the 20-year purchase contract, it should create significant savings for utility companies and their ratepayers.”

Decreasing ratepayer costs should be music to Aiken County homeowners’ ears, especially with cost overruns at a nuclear plant partially owned by SCANA coupled with surging gas prices this past spring due to a controversial fee imposed by a subsidiary of the private utility, a fee many say discourages energy conservation.

To SCANA’s credit, its subsidiary South Carolina and Electric Gas plans to further expand solar power to the masses. It’s geared toward customers who cannot or do not wish to install solar panels.

SCE&G;’s “Community Solar Program” allows residents and eligible nonresidential customers purchase or subscribe to solar panels at several solar facilities to be constructed within SCE&G;’s service territory. In exchange for producing electricity from the panels that will be manufactured, residents will receive credits on their monthly utility bills.

Homeowners, schools, churches and even municipalities can participate.

“We often hear from customers who desire the cost savings and environmental benefits of solar energy, so we’re really proud to bring those advantages to even more customers,” said Danny Kassis, vice president of customer relations and renewables for SCE&G.; “For some customers, this program creates a pathway to solar energy where there wasn’t one before.”

This is exciting news. SCE&G; and its parent company, SCANA, have been taking a beating lately over cost overruns at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Plant funded by multiple electric rate increases. The utility also has faced scrutiny for its weather normalization adjustment, or WNA.

The WNA kicks in during cooler months, causing many homeowners’ bills to skyrocket despite declining power consumption in warm spells. We agreed with residents who complained that the WNA is a disincentive to conserve energy. Power customers were still getting zapped despite reducing usage.

SCE&G;’s solar initiative is a positive step. Not only does it encourage more people to embrace solar, it also increases competition in the marketplace. In Economics 101, we’re taught that increasing competition helps drive down costs.

Solar is no longer a pipe dream. It’s becoming a growing business.

Online: https://www.aikenstandard.com/

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June 10

The Island Packet on changes to the state’s Freedom of Information Act:

The primary missing ingredient in government today is public trust.

Recently enacted improvements to the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act should help.

We are proud and grateful that state Rep. Weston Newton, a Republican from Bluffton and former 10-year chairman of the Beaufort County Council, played a major role in making this happen.

The result should help the public in terms of time, money and accountability.

It should reduce the number of egregious acts by local governments to hide public information from the public.

Newton has worked on the topic since voters sent him to Columbia in 2013, alongside Aiken Republican Bill Taylor, with help in the Senate from Chip Campsen, a Charleston Republican whose district reaches into Beaufort County.

Part of the process was hearing from the public. One thing that stands out in Newton’s mind is the woman who said a local government was going to charge her $11,000 to get the same package of material she saw in an elected leader’s hands.

So here’s what was done about it:

Cost: Government agencies can charge no more than the prevailing commercial rate for producing copies. It’s absurd that this has to be written into to law, but it does and it shows why there is lost public trust in government.

Time: Major improvements here. The amount of time an agency has to respond to a request for public information was reduced from 15 to 10 days. But, more importantly, the law includes for the first time a deadline (30 days) for the agency to actually turn over the information. Also, the Circuit Court now must schedule a hearing within 10 days when an FOIA suit is filed.

Accountability: A civil fine of $500, plus attorneys fees, for violators was added to give some teeth to the long-running problem of enforcing the FOIA. That is an improvement over a criminal charge in the act that Newton said has never been enforced or even prosecuted because it has the unreasonable requirement of proving that a government official (which one would it be for a school district, for example) deliberately withheld public information with criminal intent.

These improvements should make government more accountable to the people, which leads to transparency, and perhaps greater public trust and involvement.

But there is more to do.

Newton has pushed to eliminate the FOIA exemption granted to the legislature. It’s an absurd notion that county councils, mayors and governors must abide by the law, but the legislature does not.

Also, it is a shame that the bill did not include a widely accepted method of bringing greater accountability to governments and more power to the people by adding an FOIA hearing officer. This would make it cheaper and easier for a citizen to challenge the government. And it would start building a body of opinions that could influence future decisions that violate the FOIA. As Newton said, there is no reason a citizen should have to bear the potentially staggering expense of challenging an FOIA violation. And there’s no need to start each challenge from scratch when previous cases could be reviewed from what might look like a people’s court.

For democracy to work, governments must be beholden to the people. These long-fought improvements to the Freedom of Information Act are a good step toward making it happen.

Online: https://www.islandpacket.com/

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June 13

The Post and Courier on higher education oversight:

The budget proviso to curb the oversight authority of the state Commission on Higher Education is an example of bad legislative policy and process. Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto of the proviso on Monday should put a timely stop to this instance of legislative meddling while ensuring oversight for capital projects sought by the state’s 33 colleges and universities.

The proviso, inserted by the House, seeks to restrict the statutory authority of the CHE to perform its due diligence for higher ed building proposals. CHE officials estimate that it would eliminate agency review of about 80 percent of all higher ed projects.

It is an example of how legislative leaders attempt to insinuate themselves in areas where they have no business.

The House proviso was thrown out by the Senate Finance Committee, but was later re-inserted by the House. It survived conference committee review, but was rejected by the Senate 19-23 when the final version of the budget was presented last week.

The Senate backed off its opposition, however, when Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman said the resultant budget impasse could make for “a very long, hot summer.” Mr. McMaster’s veto takes that uncomfortable prospect off the table, and the Senate now has the opportunity to sustain the veto, even if the House sticks to its ill-considered support of the proviso.

Unfortunately, the presidents of the University of South Carolina and Clemson University have endorsed the proviso, arguing against any oversight by the Commission on Higher Education on the projects in question. They say that funding would come from private donations, athletic ticket sales and television revenue from sporting events, not higher tuition and fees.

In comments last week, USC President Harris Pastides contended that the proviso would provide relief from an “overly burdensome bureaucracy.” And in an op-ed published in the Greenville News on Sunday, Clemson President Jim Clements made a similar case:

“The CHE contends that its participation in this already extensive review process is needed to protect taxpayers and to control tuition. However, for the types of projects in question, CHE is merely adding a layer of bureaucracy, and in some cases it is actually adding to the cost of higher education projects.”

Of course, the costs won’t go up if the projects are determined to be unwarranted and they don’t get built.

University officials cite the oversight provided by the legislative Joint Bond Review Committee and the Fiscal Accountability Board, formerly the Budget and Control Board, saying that CHE oversight is unnecessary. Actually, an independent CHE should be the primary agency to provide oversight for higher education, as its name implies.

Gov. McMaster acknowledged the importance of the CHE’s role, while noting that the proviso would strip the agency of the authority to do its job.

In his veto message, the governor made the point that the projects in question would be public assets that should get scrutiny by the commission appointed to perform that task.

“Every building, brick, fixture and square foot of our public institutions belongs to the people of South Carolina,” Gov. McMaster wrote in his veto message. “The CHE must be allowed to exercise its oversight authority.”

Gov. McMaster added that he would “look forward to appointing commission members who exercise prudent and fair judgment.” State taxpayers and those who are paying tuition and fees to state colleges and universities should support that resolve.

Certainly, the CHE exercised its prudent judgment last year when it repeatedly rejected plans for a $38.1 million football stadium expansion for Coastal Carolina University in Conway, in part because it would be financed by higher student fees. Too bad CCU officials were able to do an end run around the CHE with the help of their friends in the Legislature.

Gov. McMaster’s veto may settle the issue for the next fiscal year, beginning on July 1, but it won’t be the last word on whether the CHE will be able to continue its work without legislative interference. Almost certainly, there will be legislators who continue trying to assist their favorite institutions achieve sometimes grandiose ends.

But the governor’s veto is a welcome affirmation for greater accountability for higher education spending. Indeed, it bolsters the case for a stronger, more centralized authority for higher education, statewide.

Online: https://www.postandcourier.com/

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