Editorial: The real scam behind anti-solar Amendment 1

Published October 21 2016

Few efforts to change the Florida Constitution have been as deceitful as Amendment 1, the solar power measure on the November ballot that is about everything but expanding solar energy. Now the policy director of a utility-aligned think tank has acknowledged what has been clear all along: The amendment was cooked up by the utilities as a way to confuse voters, creating a Trojan horse that will restrict competition and cheaper solar from entering the market. This is a testament to the sorry state of public representation in Tallahassee, the corrupting role of money in politics, the failure of the Florida Supreme Court to perform its basic duty — and the lies that frame policy choices in modern elections.

In today's Perspective section, Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau cites a presentation made by Sal Nuzzo, a vice president at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit on Oct. 2 in Nashville. He called the constitutional amendment, which has received nearly $22 million in financing — mostly from the investor-owned utilities — "an incredibly savvy maneuver." He also predicted it "would completely negate anything they (pro-solar interests) would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road," according to an audio recording of the event.

Noting that solar has strong support in opinion polls, he suggested to the audience: "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."

The comments underscore the sham behind this campaign and the lengths the utilities and their political committee, Consumers for Smart Solar, will go to deceive the electorate. They also expose the real danger of giving constitutional protection to existing state laws that make the market so anticompetitive.

A spokesman for Consumers for Smart Solar told the Times/Herald the committee did not engage, hire or ask JMI to do research on the effort, though Nuzzo said JMI partnered with conservative groups to conduct research for the utilities. The institute's executive director later said Nuzzo "misspoke." It appears he only misspoke in plainly speaking about this devious plot to fool the voters and getting caught.

The industry-sponsored amendment came in response to a competing measure by a solar industry-backed group, Floridians for Solar Choice, which sought to amend the Constitution to remove legal barriers and encourage low-scale solar across a broad consumer market. That group failed to collect enough voter signatures to place its measure on the ballot and expects to return in 2018.

The utilities have painted Amendment 1 as a means for expanding solar in Florida. It does no such thing. Instead it uses the Constitution to cement existing statutes that limit the marketplace, providing an uneven playing field and even greater protection. The Florida Supreme Court should have seen through this charade when it examined whether the ballot language was worded clearly enough to be put on the ballot. Instead it allowed the amendment to proceed by a sharply divided 4-3 decision. It fell to Justice Barbara Pariente to expose the court's flawed legal reasoning. In her dissent, she noted the amendment "seeks to constitutionalize the status quo" and called it "the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing."

Pro-solar advocates were quick to condemn Nuzzo's remarks as proof the power industry is acting in bad faith. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa condemned the amendment last week as a "dirty trick." At least the worst-kept secret in this election year is now clear to everyone. Florida voters should reject the anti-solar policy Amendment 1 would enshrine — and the method and cynicism behind it.