In a surprising vote, the South Carolina House killed solar energy legislation Tuesday despite a majority of legislators actually supporting the idea.
The proposal, which would have eliminated the current limit on how much capacity solar customers can contribute to the power grid, failed after House Speaker Jay Lucas ruled it required a two-thirds majority to pass. It instead received a 61-44 vote, well short of that threshold.
Lucas made the ruling following more than 30 minutes of arguments after State Rep. Anne Thayer, R-Belton, questioned if the bill violated the state constitution’s requirements that property tax exemptions pass by a two-thirds vote. The bill did include a section preventing counties from taxing the panels, although that is already current practice. Lawmakers did not seem to be aware of the constitutional provision until this week, since it was never brought up when the bill received key approval in the House last week.
“I spent all day (Monday) up here reading precedent, reading cases, looking at this,” Lucas said during his ruling. “This is a terribly important bill.”
The House initially approved the bill during a lengthy, contentious session Thursday, pitting solar industry supporters against utilities and their allies. The bill would eliminate the current two percent limit on private utilites’ capacity which can come from solar. Duke Energy and South Carolina Electric & Gas have both said they will reach the cap by next year. However, the utilities are against the net metering proposed in the bill which allows solar customers to receive a credit on their bills for power saved by not using the grid. Supporters say the incentive allows solar customers to give the grid their surplus power, while opponents claim it effectively leads other customers to pay for the power that solar customers use at night.
The bill’s supporters seemed to recognize the ruling’s legitimacy, although lead sponsor State Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, unsuccessfully attempted to argue the two-thirds vote could come at a later date should the Senate change the bill.
“The utility companies… it’s kind of hard to find when they’ve ever lost here,” he said.
Smith proposed sending the House into a Committee of the Whole, which would have effectively allowed the chamber to remove the unconstitutional language. However, the attempt came up short by one vote. That led to Tuesday’s final vote, which led to a majority supporting the bill but not enough to clear the two-thirds needed.
All but two Democrats supported the bill Thursday, while the GOP split in its voting. Upstate and Pee Dee Republicans whose constituents rely on Duke Energy more likely to oppose, while Midlands and Lowcountry lawmakers in the SCE&G service areas were more likely to support.
“It was too good to be true,” State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, R-Chapin, said of Thursday’s vote. “And I knew it. Some procedural motion miraculously happened over the weekend,” he continued, hinting he believed lobbyists came up with the idea.
But opponents said the constitution needed to be followed. “Notwithstanding the creative legal arguments that have been made by the lawyers in this body,” State Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, said. “I am certainly no lawyer… but I can read the constutition.”
Tuesday marked the “crossover” deadline, which is the date a bill must pass either the House or Senate in order to have a realistic chance of becoming law. Going forward, any new bills must receive a supermajority vote to be taken up in the other chamber.