Political spending by utilities has jumped, boosted by opposition to rooftop solar

Florida's largest electric companies gave more than $43 million to state level candidates, political parties and political committees in 2014 and 2016 election cycles — double what they spent in the 10 years prior — Integrity Florida said.
FPL energy grid equipment in Fort Lauderdale. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald file / 2016
FPL energy grid equipment in Fort Lauderdale. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. Miami Herald file / 2016
Published May 17, 2018|Updated May 17, 2018

Political spending by Florida's largest electric companies has soared in the last two election cycles, more than doubling what those companies spent in the previous ten years, a new report says.

Florida's four largest energy companies gave more than $43 million during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles to state level candidates, political parties and political committees, including $20 million on the failed 2016 ballot initiative to limit rooftop solar expansion, according to the analysis.

The paper, released by Tallahassee nonprofit research group Integrity Florida Wednesday, documented how state level political spending by the companies ramped up significantly for the 2014 and 2016 cycles, fueled in part by a costly governor's race and a failed amendment to restrict rooftop solar expansion. The report, drawn from media reports and publicly available campaign finance and lobbying records, was paid for by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

The report follows up on a similar paper — also funded by the alliance — in 2014 that detailed millions in campaign contributions and argued there was favoritism by lawmakers and regulators at the Public Service Commission. The authors also cite findings that regulators allowed companies to bypass a ban on using customer dollars for lobbying by paying dues to trade groups/associations that lobby on their behalf.

The increase in spending is "a significant jump from what we documented in the previous report," said Brad Ashwell, one of the authors of "Power Play Redux: Political Influence of Florida's Top Energy Corporations."

The researchers said growing lobbying expenditures and political contributions mean power companies have continued to exert lopsided influence in Tallahassee. The group also issued a slate of policy "options" to increase disclosures of contributions and lobbying spending.

Utility companies strongly criticized the report as a political attack and the alliance as "a dark money group" for not disclosing its own donors. Representatives of the alliance said it files forms with some of its financial information with the government as part of its status as a nonprofit.

The alliance "is an anti-utility group that has sued our company multiple times," said FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski. "For a group that has integrity in their name, you'd think they'd have higher standards."

"It's pretty clear it's a compilation of publicly disclosed campaign finance report material, which is really ironic because the group that's funding this doesn't disclose where their money is coming from," he added.

The alliance has grappled with Florida's largest utility companies for years. It sued FPL over alleged pollution violations at its Turkey Point nuclear power plant, and has pushed for more electricity options and stricter energy efficiency standards in the state. Florida law currently allows electric utility companies to retain a monopoly in exchange for regulation and a guaranteed rate of return on investment.

According to the report, the state's top four energy companies — FPL, Duke Energy, TECO and Gulf Power — also spent heavily on their lobbying expenditures and political contributions in the last four years. From 2014 to 2017, the four companies spent more than $6 million on legislative lobbying. they have also hired about 100 lobbyists, or one for every two state legislators, the report said.

Their contributions to state parties during the last two full election cycles totaled about $6.2 million. That spending favored Republicans by more than 5 to 1, according to campaign finance data.

The authors also pointed to a 2017 report from the nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, which concluded that Duke Energy and FPL charged customers for membership dues in trade groups that did political work on their behalf, although energy companies are not allowed to charge customers for lobbying expenditures.

"Regulators are allowing them to bypass that ban by paying dues to trade groups and associations that lobby," said Ben Wilcox, another author of the report.

Ana Gibbs, a spokeswoman for Duke Energy, did not specifically address the report's findings but said all of the company's political contributions are drawn from shareholders, and that those contributions are publicly reported and comply with campaign finance laws.

Bubriski, the FPL spokesman, slammed the Energy and Policy Institute as another group associated with the alliance and called the 2017 report inaccurate and "literally a rehash."

The report includes a handful of policy suggestions, calling for bans on candidate campaign contributions by a regulated utility and requirements for more disclosure of spending on lobbying and customer expenses versus shareholder profits. Members of the alliance said such recommendations would increase transparency around power companies' influence in Tallahassee.

"There have been tens of millions of dollars pumped into state races by the state's big power companies," said George Cavros, an energy policy lawyer for the alliance. "Are the policies that benefit power companies to the detriment of customers the result of power company influence or is it coincidence? I'll let you be the judge."