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South Carolina editorial roundup

February 7, 2018

Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:

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Feb. 6

The Index-Journal of Greenwood on the gubernatorial primaries:

Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

That is, we expect a rather bumpy ride heading into the gubernatorial primaries, and we have to hope some of the fun lands in our yard before June 12 gets here.

With a hefty field of candidates from both parties, it will be interesting to see how they try to navigate the waters, members of one party trying to set themselves apart from each other as they also try to distance themselves from those in the opposing party.

Evidence of how that’s going already exists as three Democratic candidates last week exchanged criticisms of each other in their first debate in Columbia. When state Rep. James Smith said he’d put $2 billion back in utility ratepayers’ pockets following the SCANA nuke plant debacle, Charleston businessman Phil Noble called it an empty promise, citing Smith’s receipt of donations from SCANA. And when Noble suggested the problem in public education lies with teachers, not students, and suggested firing a third of public school teachers and replacing them, Florence attorney Marguerite Willis called the idea “absurd.”

On the GOP side, it looks to be lining up as a race among incumbent Henry McMaster, current Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, former Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill and former DHEC director Catherine Templeton.

It will be interesting to watch these four take each other on, and while it’s generally accepted that the office-holder has the upper hand, that may not be the case here. McMaster only slid into the governor’s seat after President Trump tapped then-Gov. Nikki Haley to serve as U.N. ambassador. The governor is seeking the people’s support to keep him in the Governor’s Mansion for what would be his first full term.

Perhaps viewed as something of a fresh outsider, Templeton has caused a bit of a stir in recent days. First, she accused The State newspaper of purposefully publishing a photo of Templeton with a story about Catherine Heigel, her DHEC successor, saying the newspaper did so in an effort to help McMaster.

While that smacked of another politician getting on the “fake news” bandwagon, it was probably viewed as less egregious as what she said when addressing a crowd at Bob Jones University in Greenville.

Critics no doubt took things too far by labeling her a “slavery sympathizer,” but Templeton would have done well to find a better way to say the federal government ought not poke its nose so far into state government’s business than to proudly draw parallels to the Confederacy.

“We didn’t need them to tell us how to live way back then, and we don’t need them to tell us how to live today,” she said.

She stepped into a sticky mess with those remarks and, frankly, no matter how she might have tried to explain herself, it did not get any better. “The past cannot be changed,” she said, “but we can learn from it.”

Indeed, she’s right. But leading into Black History Month, she has a few lessons to learn about how her words can strike a very wrong chord.

Hey, it’s only early February. There are plenty of weeks between now and the June 12 primary elections. So, get out that popcorn, sit back and watch. Just remember to fasten your seat belt.

Online: http://www.indexjournal.com/

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Feb. 6

The Post and Courier of Charleston on deadly train crashes:

The number of deadly train collisions keeps piling up years after Congress mandated that railroads install an automatic-braking technology to prevent such accidents. Congress must end the delays and demand that railroads implement positive train control systems nationwide without delay.

Before Sunday’s crash in Cayce that killed two people, there was the Amtrak derailment in Washington State that left three dead in December. There also was the derailment in Philadelphia that resulted in eight deaths. One person died when a transit train crashed into a New Jersey terminal. Hundreds were injured in these and other accidents.

After each collision, there was renewed talk about the need to implement the positive train control system Congress ordered in 2008. While the railroads expressed regret over the accidents, they also argued that the high cost of the system and the complexity of installing it made implementation extremely difficult.

Those explanations would carry more weight if at least some of the industry hadn’t been using them since the National Transportation Safety Board put the technology on its “most wanted” safety improvements list in 1990.

We get it. With estimates ranging from $10 billion to $22 billion, it will take a lot of industry and federal money to completely implement the system. But as the human toll mounts with each accident, that cost doesn’t seem so extreme. Indeed, while railroads have spent billions installing the equipment on some of their tracks, they also have found money to spend on new trains and stations. There’s more work to do, and available funds should go to safety measures rather than amenities.

In its simplest terms, positive train control is akin to a smart autopilot system that serves as a backup to the humans running the trains. It can override a train’s controls if it is going too fast or goes through a signal.

While the NTSB had been pushing for the technology for decades, it was a crash near Los Angeles that killed 25 people in 2008 that pushed Congress to mandate that the technology be in place by 2016. Still, the railroads complained that they would have to shut down on Jan. 1, 2016, if they didn’t get an extension.

So Congress allowed the railroads to kick the can down the road to the end of 2018, when more than three-quarters of railroads are expected to have the technology installed, but left a loophole that could push implementation on some lines to the end of 2020. It’s past time for Congress to insist that railroads finish the job.

A House subcommittee that includes Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., will take up the train technology issue on Feb. 15. It’s up to lawmakers from both parties to push for rapid full implementation. Lives depend on it.

Each new preventable accident is an unwarranted tragedy. Congress must stop the delays and get the railroads to install positive train control on all of the nation’s railways to prevent the next catastrophe.

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

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Feb. 5

The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg on the state Legislature’s push to strip SCANA Corp. and its subsidiary, S.C. Electric & Gas Co., of any ability to collect more money from ratepayers for the failed nuclear project in Fairfield County:

The state Legislature seems confident in its continued push to strip SCANA Corp. and its subsidiary S.C. Electric & Gas Co. of any ability to collect more money from ratepayers for the failed nuclear project in Fairfield County. They’ve got the backing of the governor and the sentiments of a lot of customers in their corner.

But they may be going too far - so far in fact that the very future of a major utility is endangered. And they’re being told that by some respected voices.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce reacted to House approval of the Utility Ratepayer Protection Package, which would end SCE&G’s ability to charge customers for the reactor project.

“We appreciate the House’s efforts to address the debacle that is V.C. Summer. The business community purchases 52 percent of SCE&G’s power and is supportive of cuts for ratepayers, but cannot support this bill in its current form as it may actually create long-term regulatory issues that could drive up costs and slow potential private sector investment. S&P and Moody’s have both clearly communicated concerns over provisions in H.4375 that would retroactively undo a law creating an unstable environment for investment and potentially cost every ratepayer in the state,” said Jack Sanders, CEO of Sonoco and chairman of the state chamber.

Ted Pitts, president and CEO of the chamber, said, “Let’s be clear - this is a tough issue, like no other the state has ever seen, and, to complicate things, it is an election year. The chamber board’s motives for asking the House to slow down and bring in independent, expert advisers is to ensure that we achieve the best, long-term solution for ratepayers. We still believe that the General Assembly will ultimately take the time to get the final version of the bill right.”

The independent South Carolina Policy Council, a frequent critic of the Legislature for not doing enough to save taxpayer dollars, is taking a similar stand. SCPC says the bill goes too far by retroactively amending state law in putting new parameters on the guarantee that lawmakers gave utilities in the 2007 Base Load Review Act, dictating new interim rates for SCE&G and suspending part of the standard appeals law for SCANA regarding the nuclear project.

“While this legislation, if passed, would result in temporarily lowered rates, it would trample the constitution and the balance of power in the process — a very costly trade-off. Lawmakers guaranteed SCANA’s debt through the 2007 BLRA (whether the plant was finished or not), and that guarantee cannot be withdrawn simply because they are feeling the heat for it,” SCPC states.

“Simply put, in this bill lawmakers are choosing their own political welfare over upholding the rule of law and the constitution.

Even SCANA critics such as S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce leader Frank Knapp is saying more information is needed to truly determine whether SCANA is in danger of bankruptcy if lawmakers push ahead in trying to strip the company of any ability to further collect for the plants.

“There is no way in the world they could have provided the Public Service Commission with the financial information about SCE&G to make a proper decision,” Knapp told The State newspaper regarding an Office of Regulatory Staff report to the PSC stating that chances of SCANA bankruptcy are not high. The company has disputed that and the PSC has now ordered a second audit.

While such an accounting is being prepared, lawmakers should slow down the pace of their actions aimed at the utility. The General Assembly gave SCE&G the right to charge for the reactors in the way it has, and despite the unpopular nature of continuing costs for the failed project, a total pullback now may yield results that in the end cost ratepayers far more than they are paying.

Online: http://thetandd.com

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