Broward News

Electric Companies Try to Trick Voters at Ballot Box With Solar Amendment

During the coming election season, Florida voters will have to deal with one of the more devious legislative tricks we've seen in a while: Two upcoming ballot initiatives say they'll make it easier for consumers to install solar panels on their homes. One of them — Amendment 4, slated for the August 30 primary ballot — would give tax breaks to people who install solar panels at home.

The other, Amendment 1, is actually backed by Florida's utility companies and would do nothing to help solar owners. It was put for a vote to help tank a different, pro-solar amendment, and still exists simply to trick people into voting for the wrong bill.

So, after the state endured one anti-solar dirty-trick campaign, two groups backing Amendment 4 — one led by State Senator Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and another led by Repulican solar advocate Tory Perfetti — have launched a social media campaign to remind people to vote "yes" on Amendment 4 in August.

In a state where the main export is sunshine, Florida's record on solar power is surprisingly terrible. This is largely because the state's utility companies have a stranglehold on the state legislature and employ an army of lobbyists determined to fight off any threats to their current business model.

"It's no secret we play an active role in public policy," FPL spokesperson Mark Bubriski told Rolling Stone in February. According to that same Rolling Stone piece, the state's four largest utility companies have spent $18 million on political contributions since 2004, in addition to $12 million in lobbying since 2007. Utility companies contributed more than $1 million to Rick Scott's campaign.

When a group called the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy tried to pass an amendment that would have opened up Florida's power companies to more competition, the utility companies spent wads of money on a decoy "Smart Solar" amendment, which just reinforced the state's existing, pro-utility laws. When the Southern Alliance sent canvassers out to collect signatures and get their initiative onto the November ballot, the utility companies sent decoy canvassers to combat them. The utilities' "Solar Choice" bill made it to the November ballot, where it still stands.

But there's also a separate amendment — Amendment 4 — that would, if enacted, exempt people from certain property taxes if they install solar panels. It's up for a vote on August 30, and Brandes' group is now blasting out information on social media to make sure people know what they're voting for.

Chris Spencer, Brandes' former legislative aide, is heading up the campaign, dubbed the "Yes4Solar" initiative. Speaking with New Times, Spencer said his group had been working on getting Amendment 4 passed for at least three years, and that they specifically put it on the August 30 ballot to "make sure this was viewed as completely separate than what’s taking part in November." (After Brandes introduced the bill in January, there were rumblings that FPL, and possibly the Koch brothers, would fight Amendment 4 as well.)

Officially, Spencer said, his campaign is "neutral" on the November ballot initiative. "We don't want to complicate the issue," he said. Instead, he stressed that his group is just working to push Amendment 4 as much as it can.

"We want to make sure that no one sees something about property taxes and doesn't understand it," he said. "When voters don’t understand an amendment, they tend to question it and don’t want to vote for it."

So, just to make things crystal clear: If you're pro-green energy, vote "yes" on Amendment 4 in August, and "no" on Amendment 1 in November.

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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli