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  1. Florida Politics

Sun setting on solar power campaign amid financial dispute

Published Dec. 19, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Don't expect to vote on looser rules for solar energy in next November's election.

Amid allegations that it wasn't paying bills, Floridians for Solar Choice shut down its paid petition-gathering operation in the state several weeks ago. The coalition of environmental and free-market groups was pushing a constitutional amendment that would have allowed people to contract with solar energy companies to install solar panels on their roofs and buy that electricity.

Late Thursday, the group announced it was "exploring options for a 2018 campaign."

Floridians for Solar Choice had contracted with a California-based firm called PCI Consulting to gather petitions needed to put its constitutional amendment on the ballot. It has paid the company more than $1 million this year to collect signatures, according to state records.

PCI Consulting president Angelo Paparella says Floridians for Solar Choice still owes his firm hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Stephen Smith, who sits on the Solar Choice board, contends that the group has "paid all the legitimate claims in the contract in full."

"(Smith) tried to raise the money, and he never raised it," Paparella said Friday. "He couldn't get there, and that's fine. But what's not fine is to not pay me. It's ridiculous."

After pulling the plug on signature gathering in mid November, PCI Consulting sent Floridians for Solar Choice a bill that included about $200,000 in charges the group says were not part of the contract, said Smith, the executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which funded most of the solar group's efforts.

It takes 683,149 petitions signed by at least 8 percent of the registered voters in 14 congressional districts to make the ballot in Florida. Most successful campaigns contract signature-gathering work out to companies like PCI Consulting, which in 2014 put medical marijuana and conservation amendments on the ballot.

With a critical Dec. 31 deadline fast approaching, Floridians for Solar Choice is more than 400,000 signatures shy of what it needs. The state has verified 272,444 petitions, and 212,000 more are being held by PCI Consulting while the accounting disagreements are worked through.

"They have about 212,000 petitions that we have paid for, that we have met all the contractual obligations for, and we are prepared to go to court to get those released," Smith said.

Paparella would not comment on details about those signatures, except to say that they will "get turned over to the committee upon full payment of all invoices." He said he is considering filing a lawsuit, as well.

Even with the petitions PCI Consulting has not sent to supervisors of elections, Floridians for Solar Choice would be well short of what it needs to make it on the ballot. In part, that is because it stopped paying people to collect petitions in November.

Adding to the group's woes: For months, a rival group backed by major utility companies has mounted a counter-campaign with its own constitutional amendment solidifying existing utility regulations.

"Their apparent failure to make the ballot does not change our objective," Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Consumers for Smart Solar, said in a statement Friday. "We will continue to gather signatures to place our Smart Solar amendment on the ballot, and will vigorously advocate its passage."

Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy funneled more than $1 million each into that group, which raised more than any political committee in the state this year, including Gov. Rick Scott's Let's Get to Work. Most of that money went to its own signature-collection efforts. The utility group also reportedly raised the amount it would pay for each petition collected, making it harder for Floridians for Solar Choice to keep pace.

The Solar Choice group still hopes to qualify for the 2016 ballot, but recognizes it's a long shot.

"We are not giving up," Smith said, "(but) we can and are seriously looking at a potential pivot to 2018."

That would likely require it to continue collecting petitions through this year, while the signatures it has already submitted are eligible. It also might require Floridians for Solar Choice to contract with a company to collect petition signatures again.

"I'm not sure Mr. Paparella and I will agree on that going forward," Smith said, "but there are other groups we can work with."

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.