TALLAHASSEE — A Florida Senate committee on Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment for the November ballot that would give tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels, but it is unlikely to come before voters: The chairman of a powerful House committee believes the solar industry isn't ready for it.
"I just don't see the need to continue to expand the incentives and underwriting of solar," said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee. "Solar is coming a long way and eventually it's going to be able to stand on its own two feet. But right now it doesn't."
Proponents of the bill, however, say that Workman's attitude is more proof of the clout of Florida's electric utilities, which view rooftop solar as the beginning of the end of their monopoly control over Florida's energy market.
John Porter, the former mayor of Cape Canaveral and the managing partner of the solar energy company CleanFootprint, said Workman and others in the Legislature oppose the amendment because voters would likely approve it.
"Nothing polls over 90 percent (among voters), but solar does," he said. "If the people of Florida are given a choice in this issue, they are going to vote yes. … They understand how valuable it is to their air, their water and to the future of Florida.
"Instead, everybody here is really interested in keeping the status quo in place, which is the stranglehold of these large utilities," he said. "It's really almost criminal, and we need to make a change"
Two bills in play, SB 917 and HB 825, would place an amendment on the 2014 ballot that would rewrite the state Constitution to allow for an ad valorem tax exemption when businesses install renewable energy devices, such as solar panels, as long as the company consumes the electricity itself.
In 2008, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to provide a tax exemption for renewable energy improvements made to residential properties. It passed with 61 percent support.
The Senate Community Affairs unanimously approved SB 917 on Tuesday, but its companion in the House has not gotten a hearing because of Workman's objections.
That has prompted the solar industry to launch a tirade of protests and solar proponents that have jammed Workman's Twitter feed, filled his email box and crowded his office. They're also planning a rally next week.
"They're making me dig my heels in because they're blowing me up," said a defiant Workman.
He insists he is not being a shill for the utility giants. "I would love to unmonopolize them," he said. "I'm not fighting this constitutional amendment because I'm in the pockets of them. I am tired of propping up the industry."
The state's three largest electric companies have spent nearly $3 million on campaign contributions this election cycle alone — including $2.5 million from Florida Power & Light, which competes with the solar industry by offering its own solar plants. TECO Energy has spent $754,000 and Duke Energy has given $390,000.
When voters approved the 2008 constitutional amendment, it took until last year to get legislators to pass a bill to implement it. Workman shepherded the legislation through and now is resentful the solar industry doesn't appreciate his efforts.
"I'm now Mr. Anti-Solar and it's ridiculous because the minute they are viable, my roof is going to be covered with them," he said, arguing that state taxpayers would have "to underwrite the entire process to make it viable."
The proposed amendment has the support of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and a growing number of solar companies that want a foothold in Florida.
Several businessmen who are working on developing solar technology in Florida told the committee that the state's market has been so suppressed that they have had to go to other states to do business.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the bill to implement the 2008 constitutional amendment last year, cited an Integrity Florida report released Monday that alleges the state's four largest electric companies use campaign cash and lobbyists to push a legislative agenda favorable to shareholders and not necessarily customers.
"Maybe it's coincidental we're having this discussion on the week we had the Integrity Florida report on the stranglehold that the energy companies have in Florida because of the money that they put in the process," Latvala said. "But that's what we've got to deal with."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.