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  1. Florida Politics

State Sen. Frank Artiles drops green flag, boosts two bills favorable to FPL

TALLAHASSEE — Sen. Frank Artiles put on a brown jacket with "NextEra" emblazoned on the back and waved the green flag for the unofficial start to the Friday night truck race at this year's Daytona 500 weekend.

Within minutes, a dramatic crash became the highlight of the season-opening event sponsored by NextEra, the parent company to Florida Power & Light.

Artiles, the chairman of the Florida Senate's Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, also used the event to hold a fundraiser, which he says raised him more than $10,000. Now, Artiles, R-Miami, is returning a favor to Florida's largest utility.

On Tuesday, in the first meeting of his energy committee since the start of the Legislature's annual session, Artiles has scheduled two recently filed bills sought by FPL that will address two court rulings that dealt significant blows to the company.

One bill, SB 1238, by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, will allow utilities to charge customers for exploratory natural gas fracking in other states, overturning a Florida Supreme Court ruling against FPL last year.

Another bill, SB 1048, by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, revises state law after the Third District Court of Appeal ruling that found Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet — acting as the state siting board overseeing power plants — failed to consider the city of Miami's development rules when it signed off on allowing FPL to string 88 miles of line atop towers 80 to 150 feet high.

The legislation would unravel the court decision and revise existing law relating to rights of way corridors, allow new variances for local land use regulations, and give the Public Service Commission the exclusive authority to order utilities to bury utility lines, said Victoria Mendez, general counsel for the city of Miami, which filed the lawsuit.

"This bill seems to be a vehicle for utilities to legislate around the recent court decision," she said. "We hope that the Legislature does not limit the ability of local governments to protect the health, safety and welfare of its residents in future project and plans put forward by electric companies."

But Lee said his intent was to "do a very narrow fix" to a flaw in the law found by the judge. "It's really a technical change," he said. He argued that the PSC should be the only authority able to decide when utilities bury their power lines, and he says the fix allows the state to "tighten the statutes as they were intended over the last 40 years."

Environmental groups expressed alarm at Artiles' decision to fast-track the legislation — the fracking bill was filed Monday, and the bill relating to transmission lines was filed last week. The FPL-related bills are the only pieces of legislation on the agenda of Tuesday's meeting.

Artiles acknowledged he gave the bills a boost but defended the decision, saying he was following "a clear signal" that it was a priority of Senate President Joe Negron.

"If the bill has two references, that's a message from the president that it's important," he said. "I believe this is something the president wants to move. FPL lobbyists still have to do their work."

But Negron, whose political committee received $57,500 from FPL in the last election cycle, wasn't willing to take responsibility for Artiles' decision to fast-track the bills.

"President Negron refers all bills to the committees he deems appropriate based on his judgment," said Katie Betta, Negron's spokesperson. "Committee chairs set the agendas for their meetings."

Artiles had a video of his green-flag moment posted on Facebook but has since removed it. "It was an honor to be there," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you. It was cool."

He said his staff took down the video but he has kept some photos, including one that shows him wearing the NextEra jacket and posing for pictures with race officials and celebrities, such as actor Keanu Reeves.

"I have nothing to hide," he said. "I was there for a fundraiser, and I'm not the only one who has done that."

Artiles also defends wearing the jacket of the sponsor. "They asked me to do it, and I said it's no big deal," he said.

Artiles' political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, accepted $2,500 from FPL and another $5,000 from Duke Energy in the competitive race against former Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay. His largest contributions, however, were passed through other political committees and the original sources are impossible to trace.

Sarah Gatewood of FPL defended the bills, saying they are needed to help customers.

"We believe that investing in natural gas reserves is a smart, long-term investment that would help us continue to provide our customers with reliable electricity at low and stable prices," she said in a statement. "To be clear, this would apply to natural gas reserve investments outside of Florida."

Under Bean's bill, regulated utilities would be allowed to charge customers for the cost of speculative drilling. FPL sought and received approval from the Public Service Commission to charge customers up to $500 million for investment in an Oklahoma-based fracking company but, in May of last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the PSC exceeded its authority when it allowed the company to charge customers "without the Florida Legislature's authority."

As an investor-owned utility, state law allows FPL to earn a guaranteed profit — return on investment — on its costs attributed to providing energy to customers. By changing the law to allow the company to put some costs of natural gas drilling into its rate base, SB 1238 would help FPL and its parent, NextEra, earn higher profits.

FPL supports SB 1048 because it would help it, and other utilities, "resolve ambiguity in the existing law and codifies the practice that has been in place for decades for the siting of linear facilities, such as transmission lines," Gatewood said. "It would also clarify that because the undergrounding of such facilities directly affects rates, the jurisdiction for those decisions should lie with the PSC."

Artiles said he was invited to wave the green flag at the Feb. 24 race, "not just because I was the chairman of the committee but because I have known [FPL lobbyist] John Holley for seven years."

He said that Holley, whose wife used to be a staff director at the Public Service Commission, was one of his earliest supporters "and I'll never forget the loyalty he had to me."

Despite that, Artiles said he "did not know that NextEra was the parent of FPL" until the fundraiser. He said he also has a history of voting against FPL's interests.

For example, Artiles said, he voted to put Amendment 4 on the ballot, even though "the utility industry wanted to kill it." The measure exempts from property taxes any installation of solar equipment on a commercial property. Artiles said he will vote against other utility bills "if they're terrible for the environment."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas