By wide margin, voters add solar tax break to state Constitution

Environmentalists applaud the victory.
The recently completed 2-megawatt solar array at Tampa International Airport's south economy parking garage generates enough electricity to power 250 homes. Amendment 4 exempts solar and other renewable energy devices on business and industrial property from property taxes for 20 years. [Times files]
The recently completed 2-megawatt solar array at Tampa International Airport's south economy parking garage generates enough electricity to power 250 homes. Amendment 4 exempts solar and other renewable energy devices on business and industrial property from property taxes for 20 years. [Times files]
Published August 31 2016
Updated August 31 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The runaway winner in Tuesday's primary election was at the end of the ballot, as voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved a tax break to encourage businesses to go solar.

The amendment, which will become part of the Florida Constitution, exempts solar and other renewable energy devices on business and industrial property from property taxes for 20 years. The same tax break already exists for residential property owners.

The amendment also exempts renewable energy devices from Florida's tangible personal property tax.

Amendment 4, the only ballot question in Tuesday's primary, got more than 70 percent of the vote, according to early returns by the Florida Division of Elections.

Backers of Amendment 4 were all along the political spectrum, including environmental advocates Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Nature Conservancy and Florida Conservation Voters, Advanced Energy Economy, and the business-backed Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Retail Federation and Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

Business groups like tax relief, and environmental groups hope it will now encourage more talk in the conservative state Capitol about climate change and the need to cut dependency on fossil fuels.

"With all of this sunshine, why are we importing so much fossil fuel to power our state?" asked Pete Wilking of A1A Solar in Jacksonville.

"Stop sea levels from rising! Vote Yes on 4!" tweeted an advocacy group, Women4Solar.

The opposition was led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the TV and radio talk show host and president of the National Action Network, and Bishop Victor Curry of Miami, NAN's southeast regional director, who said they opposed "unnecessary and unjust tax breaks for corporations."

It was one of the most cost-effective referendum campaigns in Florida history, as supporters raised less than $150,000.

Lacking the money for a TV ad campaign, supporters built support networks on Facebook and Twitter (#Yeson4) to mobilize voters.

Voters said yes to solar Tuesday, even if they did not always fully understand it.

"I think it's going to be a good thing," said Jean Bonnegue, 68, of North Miami Beach. "Very important."

Tuesday's vote of the people was just one step, however. The Legislature, which put Amendment 4 on the ballot, must pass a bill in the next session in 2017 carrying out the will of the voters.

At the same time, a much more potent political battle over solar will play out on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

Known as Amendment 1, the ballot question is an effort by powerful utility companies that would prohibit sale of solar energy to individual customers and, critics say, would add new regulatory barriers to solar expansion in Florida.

Supporters, calling themselves Consumers for Smart Solar, have raised $19.1 million so far.

Florida Power & Light, Gulf Power, TECO Energy and Duke Energy are among Amendment 1's biggest backers, and environmental groups are working to defeat it.

Utilities prevailed on state lawmakers to put Amendment 4 on the primary ballot to avoid confusing voters about their higher priority, Amendment 1.

Susan Glickman of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said moving Amendment 4 to a low-turnout primary was a blessing in disguise, as it turned out.

"It's a little bit easier because it's a more informed electorate," Glickman said.

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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