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Florida solar petition reaches key milestone

A solar petition reached a key milestone Tuesday, with state elections officials certifying enough signatures for the initiative to receive Supreme Court review for the 2016 ballot.

The state Board of Elections reported that the petition, which would allow those in Florida who generate electricity from the sun to sell that power directly to others, topped 72,000 signatures.

Floridians for Solar Choice, the sponsor of the initiative, needed 68,314 signatures for the petition drive for the state Supreme Court to determine whether the initiative's language meets legal requirements to appear on the 2016 ballot.

Mark Ard, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said now that the petition has reached the required number of signatures, letters acknowledging the initiative's status will be sent to the sponsor, the committee that reviews fiscal impact and the attorney general, who will present it to the court.

Backers of the petition had voiced frustration over perceived delays in the state's acknow­ledgment that they had crossed the necessary threshold for the court's review. Typically, the state had updated its website with signature totals daily, but there had been no updates since the middle of last week.

The state elections board updated its website late Tuesday with the new totals, after inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times about why validated signatures from Pinellas County had not been added.

Tory Perfetti, director of Floridians for Solar Choice and Florida Conservatives for Energy Freedom, said the fact that the group reached the 68,314 signatures needed for Supreme Court review shows the interest in the proposal.

"We're very pleased and not surprised," Perfetti said, "considering the reaction we've gotten from Florida citizens about opening up the free market."

Reaching the 68,314 threshold for signatures is a critical step in Florida ballot initiatives. At that point, the state attorney general has 30 days to present the initiative to the high court, which can take as long as two months to complete its review and approve the language for the ballot.

Donors to ballot initiatives often wait until final approval before backing a petition. If the court rejects the petition, donors lose money because the drive would have to start over. Once the court approves the language, then the onus rests on the organizers of the petition drive to collect 683,149 signatures by Feb. 1 to get the initiative on the 2016 ballot.

The longer it takes for Supreme Court review and approval, the less time organizers have to collect signatures. The delay in acknowledging the additional signatures frustrated Floridians for Solar Choice.

Before the update to the state website, Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, one of the petition drive's sponsors, said, "We have clearly qualified as of last week. We know the secretary of state of Florida has what they need. We can't ascertain the rationale (for the delay). Is it bureaucratic inefficiency or is there something more?"

The ballot initiative has forged an unusual alliance of tea party and Christian Coalition conservatives and libertarians, as well as environmental groups such as the Southern Alliance, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. The Florida Retail Federation, Physicians for Social Responsibility and others also have joined in the effort.

If the proposed ballot measure passes, business or property owners could produce up to 2 megawatts of solar power and sell it directly to others, such as tenants, without having to go through a utility.

But such groups as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity have challenged the benefits of solar. The state's investor-owned utilities also say rooftop solar is an inefficient, costly way for the state to produce power.

Contact Ivan Penn at ipenn@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.

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