Trigaux: Florida utilities' efforts to mislead voters on Amendment 1 solar issue are shameful

Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy and director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.
Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy and director of the Center for Economic Prosperity at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee.
Published October 20 2016
Updated October 20 2016

In a political world plumbing new depths of bad behavior and obscene lies, somebody's giving Trump and Clinton a run as lowest of the low.

Florida's electric utilities. They're snookering voters on this November's ballot with their massively misleading Amendment 1 on solar power, which is an insult to Floridians stuck relying on the monopolies for power. Self-serving utilities also demean the democratic process itself at a time when it seems most vulnerable.

For shame.

It's small wonder that fresh outrage against Florida's big power companies erupted Wednesday. Florida's pro-solar power coalition vented over a damning news report that revealed Florida's electric utilities are purposely deceiving voters to back an amendment that appears to encourage solar power in the state. In fact, the constitutional amendment would suppress the market for customer-owned, rooftop solar in Florida.

Pro-solar groups are urging Floridians to vote "No" on Amendment 1 despite its vague language hinting, incorrectly, that it favors solar competition in the state.

The deception was confirmed in the release of an audio tape of the remarks by the policy director of a think tank hired by Florida's largest electric utilities. At a conference this month, he admitted the utility industry wanted to fool voters into supporting restrictions on the expansion of solar by disguising Amendment 1 as a pro-solar amendment.

Previous coverage: Solar shenanigans: Insider reveals strategy behind Amendement 1

"We now have clear evidence that utilities are using an issue with strong voter support – solar – to mislead Florida voters in order to continue protecting their profits," Pamela Goodman of the League of Women Voters Florida, told reporters in a teleconference Wednesday afternoon. "Amendment 1 is a con job and a scam that is very dangerous for the voters and consumers of Florida."

According to the audio tape, Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, detailed the strategy used by the state's largest utilities to create and finance Amendment 1 at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville on Oct. 2. News of his remarks was first reported by Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald bureau in Tallahassee.

Nuzzo called the amendment, which has received more than $21 million in utility industry financing, "an incredibly savvy maneuver" that "would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road."

John Romano: Here's your chance to show the electric companies you're not a sucker

In response, Amendment 1 opponents that included the League of Women Voters and five other groups expressed anger and dismay during Wednesday's teleconference. Several groups criticized what they called the "fraud on voters and consumers" perpetrated by the electric monopolies. They also condemned the industry's "arrogance" in manipulating the voting process by selling an amendment, supplemented by TV ads and direct mail, that pitches itself as pro-solar.

"They know what Florida citizens and voters want — more clean solar power. Yet the power companies use what they arrogantly call 'political jiu-jitsu' to put the shady con Amendment 1 on the ballot targeted at Sunshine State voters," said Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "This is not a political left or right issue, this is a fundamental issue of what is right and wrong."

Nearly 8 million Floridians will vote this November. Smith said the Amendment 1 deception "could go down as one of the biggest fraudulent ballots" ever put before Florida voters.

Also commenting on the teleconference was Tory Perfetti, whose Floridians for Solar Choice coalition attempted to get its own pro-solar amendment on the November ballot but failed to gain enough signatures. It was pushed aside by the deep pockets of both the electric utilities and the billionaire political activist Koch brothers. Their competing campaign for what is now Amendment 1 was masked by the seemingly progressive name "Consumers for Smart Solar."

Commenting on Nuzzo's taped remarks, Perfetti said they confirm that Amendment 1 "was and is a predesigned attempt to destroy all free market energy in the state along with solar energy in general."

On Wednesday, Klas reported in a follow-up that James Madison Institute executive director Robert McClure tried to distance his think tank from the controversy, saying policy director Nuzzo "misspoke" when describing Amendment 1's deceptive strategy.

Previous coverage: Florida think tank says official misspoke about strategy behind Amendment 1

Does McClure protest too much? As Klas reports: Federal tax documents show that James Madison Institute has received more than $120,000 from the Charles Koch Institute and Charles Koch Foundation, organizations founded by the oil industry barons. Stan Connally, the CEO of Gulf Power, sits on the institute's board of directors. And Gulf Power and its affiliates have contributed more than $2.3 million to the political committee promoting the amendment.

Amid all this political posturing, Florida's own solar power industry stepped in Wednesday to denounce the manipulation behind Amendment 1.

"This is a clear example of big utilities using monopoly power and money to interfere with small business owners in the state of Florida who are trying respond to customers' desires for more rooftop solar power," Patrick Altier of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association. "If Amendment 1 is allowed to pass, it will be the biggest fraud on Florida citizens since the utilities lined their pockets with billions for advanced nuclear recovery." That's a reference to Duke Energy's success in Florida of charging its ratepayers for more than $1 billion in upfront costs for a planned nuclear power plant in Levy County that the utility later decided not to build.

Debbie Dooley, one of the founding members of the Tea Party and a supporter of the pro-solar coalition, also criticized the "corrupt" system of monopoly power companies and their misrepresentation of Amendment 1 on the upcoming ballot.

"We are standing true to the free market conservative principles of competition and choice," she said. "Voters must reject this deceptive proposal and vote No on 1."

While hundreds of thousands of Floridians have already voted by mail, the pro-solar coalition stressed many millions of Floridians have yet to vote. There is still time to influence Amendment 1, they say, despite the heavy advertising supporting it.

For a constitutional amendment to be approved in Florida, it must win a supermajority vote of 60 percent of those voting on the issue. That means, said Perfetti, that Amendment 1 can be stopped if more than 40 percent of Floridians vote against it.

Do your homework. No informed voter would support it.

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. ,Follow @venturetampabay.

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