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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Legislators roll over, fetch for big utilities

“I just don’t see the need to continue to expand the incentives and underwriting of solar,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne.
Published Apr. 3, 2014

A recent study concluded that, contrary to popular misconception, dogs actually have absolutely no sense of shame. The same might well be said of the Florida Legislature, which is one giant kennel of panting beagles, snout down in the trash bin foraging for checks.

And that explains why you, gentle reader, are no match for an elected Tallahassee grifter eager to roll over to have his or her tummy rubbed by the capital's influence peddlers.

You may have noticed the sun beating down on us. It's quite the rage.

Yet an effort to spur development of the solar panel industry in the Sunshine State has been derailed by state Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Time Share, who insisted the moment simply isn't right to pursue an obvious alternative energy source.

And just when will the time be right? Around the time the solar energy industry coughs up at least $18 million in campaign contributions to keep Tallahassee fat and happy with an unlimited supply of Kibbles 'n' Bits.

At issue was a proposed constitutional amendment to create tax breaks for solar panel businesses. While the constitutional amendment process is frequently abused and overused, it is also often the only way to pursue public policy when a feckless Florida Legislature is too cowed by deeply entrenched special interests.

The solar panel constitutional amendment passed with bipartisan support in the Senate Community Affairs Committee. But then it ended up the lap of Workman, R-Go Fetch, who chairs the House Finance and Tax Committee. What happened? Think Old Yeller.

That a proposed constitutional amendment to support an alternative energy source would die should hardly come as a surprise. Over the past five years, Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, TECO and Gulf Power have pumped more than $18 million into legislative and state political campaigns, including $3 million in this election cycle. Then add another $12 million on lobbyists to tighten their hold over the state's electricity customers.

That probably explains why Workman, R-Good Boy, Good Boy, took time away from shilling for the utility companies to insist he was not a shill. Indeed, Workman claimed he is weary from propping up the solar industry.

Little wonder the poor committee chairman is so pooped, especially since the Florida Legislature has consistently carried the megawatts for the utilities, such as allowing Duke Energy to continue to collect $1.5 billion in nuclear recovery fees for a power plant that will never be built. And just last year, the Florida Legislature voted down a bill that would have required utilities to disclose the fees to customers.

The Legislature could pass a law ending the revolving door of Public Service Commission members going back and forth to work for the utilities or functioning as lobbyists for the industry. Good luck with that.

Or — and here is an heretical notion — the Legislature could empower PSC members to actually regulate the state's utilities on behalf of the public instead of functioning as nodding bobblehead dolls.

Republican legislators never miss an opportunity to extol the principle of competitive marketplaces and the need to encourage and nurture innovation. But what chance does a burgeoning alternative energy industry have against the state's power grid giants when a constitutional amendment asking the voters to approve solar panel tax breaks can be effectively censored by a single beholden lawmaker?

There's not much doubt the state's utility oligarchs have received a solid return for their $18 million in legalized baksheesh and a corps of professional schmoozers totaling one lobbyist for every two elected state schnauzers.

Imagine though, if the solar panel industry managed to spread around, say, $40 million in Tallahassee's Capitol dog park?

Is there any doubt we would see a Ritch Workman, R-Shake!, suddenly transformed into a dedicated environmentalist that would make Al Gore sound like a carnival barker for BP Global?

Gracious, we would quickly see solar panels installed on Gov. Rick Scott's private jet. Such is the pragmatic utilitarian value of having no shame if the price of a chewy is just right.

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