TALLAHASSEE — The head of the think tank that provided research for a utility-backed solar amendment on the November ballot, said his policy director "misspoke" when he characterized the effort as a strategy to deceive voters into thinking the plan was a pro-solar amendment.
Robert McClure, executive director of the Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute, responded to a report in the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times that the policy director of JMI, Sal Nuzzo, disclosed at a conference this month that the industry attempted to deceive voters into supporting restrictions on the expansion of solar by portraying Amendment 1 as a pro-solar amendment.
"At an event with an unfamiliar, national audience, Mr. Nuzzo generalized his commentary and misspoke in reference to JMI partnering with Consumers for Smart Solar in any capacity," McClure said in a statement.
McClure said his organization never received funding from the political committee formed by the state's largest utilities to oppose a solar-industry backed initiative and promote a rival amendment of their own. He said that "no one funds individual studies. People support our mission generally and we decide internally what topics we're going to weigh in on."
"JMI has never worked with or received funding from Consumers for Smart Solar," McClure said in a statement. "We have released policy positions on both solar amendments and have publicly spoken on the pros and cons of each."
McClure would not comment on whether the utility industry or its supporters provided financing for JMI before it embarked on the research that is now being promoted by the political committee financed by the utility industry, but he denied there was a link.
Nuzzo spoke to the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit in Nashville on Oct. 2, and called Amendment 1, the proposal backed by the industry, "an incredibly savvy maneuver" that "would completely negate anything they [pro-solar interests] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road."
The hourlong audio recording of the event was supplied to the Herald/Times by the left-leaning Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute. In it, Nuzzo claimed that it was the political committee that approached the think tank.
"So Consumers for Smart Solar came to JMI and said you guys are the adults in the room, you're the ones that have access to the research, to the scholars, to the SPN, to a lot of the national organizations, we need some help because not only are they going to get the 700,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, it's actually polling in the 70 percent range," he said.
Nuzzo went on to describe the political committee's strategy.
"So Consumers for Smart Solar not only conducted the research but then also in what I would consider an incredibly savvy maneuver, they put forth their own constitutional ballot initiative," he said. "That ballot initiative also gathered the 700,000 signatures, but what it said was, individuals have the right to own solar equipment, they have the right to install solar equipment and lease it, they have the right to generate as much electricity as they can. It acknowledges net metering policies in the state."
He spoke of how the dueling amendments "has led to an all-out war in the state of Florida." He said that JMI partnered with the conservative Heartland Institute and a free-market researcher from Florida State University's Devoe Moore Center to conduct the research and together they "built a model."
Nuzzo concluded his remarks with a piece of advice:
"The point I would make, maybe the takeaway, is as you guys look at policy in your state or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: solar polls very well. To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they're kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums — if that's the direction you want to take — use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop."
When Nuzzo's comments were read back to him Tuesday, he told the Herald/Times: "In the context of that, I stand by them."
On Wednesday, McClure, whose organization is a non-profit that cannot engage in political activity, distanced himself from his policy director's statement that the research group was involved in the utility industry strategy.
"JMI has played no role in their efforts," McClure said Wednesday. "The Institute does have strong opinions about both amendments, which were expressed in this recording — ones that we would repeat all over again if given the opportunity. We are supported by thousands of individuals and foundations across the state and nation who believe in our mission, but no one guides our policy positions except our sanctioned policy experts and the facts at hand. Our 30 years of independent research bears this out."
Consumers for Smart Solar, the utility-backed political committee, has highlighted JMI's research in its promotional materials. Federal tax documents show that JMI 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 JMI's board of directors and Gulf Power and its affiliates have contributed more than $2.3 million to the political committee promoting the amendment.
The political committee promoting the amendment has raised nearly $22 million to promote its efforts, primarily through funding from Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co., and non-profit groups primarily funded by Exxon and the Koch brothers.
The opponents of Amendment 1, a coalition of solar-industry promoters, free-market conservatives and environmental advocates, blasted the revelations during a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
"This could go down as one of the biggest, fraudulent ballots that has ever been put before Florida voters — where these monopoly utilities have used their monopoly power to actually manipulate what customers want and are using it against them," said Stephen A. Smith, director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "We have suspected and known for a long time that the large monopoly utilities in the state of Florida go to great lengths to limit solar. But this audio tape shows just how absolutely arrogant and how deceptive and what kind of voter fraud they are willing to perpetuate."
Nuzzo's remarks to the conference that the solar advocates "actually leveraged some of the less savvy, less informed, tea party groups and formed what is now called the Green Tea Movement" also provoked anger from the conservative solar proponents.
"This audio tape has shown that we were right," Debbie Dooley, a founding member of the solar-industry-backed Floridians for Solar Choice and a member of the conservative Green Tea Coalition. "They attacked Green Tea Coalition members as being uninformed. We are staying true to the free market principle of competition and choice. We support solar because we are very informed by the research we have conducted."