Nikki Fried to Ron DeSantis: Lay off Energy office

A bill that would move the state’s Office of Energy from under Fried’s control to DeSantis is a priority of the governor, who is behind a series of efforts to consolidate power under his office.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. [ [SAMANTHA J. GROSS | Times/Herald] ]
Published Jan. 28, 2020|Updated Jan. 28, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Standing beside two light bulbs, one aglow and labeled “Nikki Fried on Energy” and the other unlit and labeled “Ron DeSantis on Energy,” Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried slammed the governor Tuesday for making what she called a partisan power grab at her office.

She was reacting to an effort to move the state’s Office of Energy from under her purview to the Department of Environmental Protection. The effort, in the form of a proposed committee bill, passed out of the Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Tuesday morning by a 10-1 vote.

Three of the four Democrats on the committee voted yes on the bill but despite their votes, Fried maintained that the bill is “partisan punishment.”

“This bill puts party before state, and puts the governor before Floridians,” she said, noting that the Office of Energy went untouched while Republican Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was in office. “Now that a Democrat sits in this office, it suddenly needs to be moved.”

Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, said her office has not been in contact with DeSantis regarding the bill.

The office, which has lived under the Department of Agriculture since 2011, evaluates energy-related studies and analyses, makes recommendations to the governor and Legislature on energy policies and manages education programs throughout the state using state and federal funds.

The office also oversees programs like the state’s renewable energy sales refund, tax credit program and the renewable energy production credit program. It was first created under the Department of Community Affairs, which was dissolved under Gov. Rick Scotts’s administration. It then bounced to DEP, then to the Executive Office of the Governor and finally to the Department of Agriculture.

Committee member Thad Altman, R-Indialantic, had voted to transfer the Office of Energy from the Executive Office of the Governor to the Department of Agriculture in 2011. He voted to move it once again Tuesday.

The bill is a priority of DeSantis, who is behind a series of efforts to consolidate power under his office.

In addition to moving the Office of Energy under the DEP, DeSantis also wants the Legislature to give him control over DEP itself, which essentially puts the Office of Energy under his purview.

Under bills filed by Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, the executive director of the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the DEP secretary would report directly to DeSantis.

Currently, agency secretaries report to independently elected members of the cabinet, which is comprised of the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.

While Republicans on the committee questioned whether the move could save costs in the future, some Democrats questioned the point of moving the office at all.

“I see this movement as a solution in search of a problem,” said Rep. Tina Polsky, the only no vote on the bill.

Fried spoke in front of the committee Tuesday, challenging the committee members to question the motives of the bill. She listed the department’s accomplishments under her purview, including millions in program funding, hosting Florida’s first statewide climate summit and involvement in the states’ energy efficiency goal setting for utility companies.

The move is a political one, she said before the committee.

“Ask yourself why are we choosing to disrupt this office now that it is working for the people,” she said. “The answers, I fear, are not found in policy in the name of government streamlining and efficiency. Immediate political conveniences can fracture some crucial, interconnected pieces of our state’s security and our future.”

Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee chair Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said DEP is an appropriate place to handle clean energy, because it already handled goals for clean water and clean air.

“Plus, the Department has already indicated to us that they are ready and willing,” she said.

Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said she’s watched the office bounce from agency to agency.

She said she hopes whoever ends up overseeing the office will “move the ball faster down the field.” Glickman also noted that during energy conservation goal-setting this summer, her organization was at odds with a brief Fried filed that called the conservation goal standards “outdated” and suggested that they be scrapped.

“It’s unclear who is likely to show more leadership,” Glickman told the Times/Herald. “The ability to move Florida into a clean energy future is simply a matter of leadership … Guiding Florida’s energy policy to where it needs to be is solely a matter of political will.”

Glickman added that during a DEP meeting she attended in Tampa over the summer, there was discussion of a future climate assessment by the department that sounded promising

“I’ve heard top DEP staff articulate the need to respond to climate change,” Glickman said. “Whether or not that evolves into real concrete actions is still left to be seen.”

The bill still has to pass the House appropriations committee before it heads to a floor vote.