In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: In Tallahassee, only money talks

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

You can’t vote on the solar power tax break constitutional amendment. You’re not rich enough.

You didn’t hire a team of lobbyists. You didn’t make huge donations to the right political parties. You didn’t give campaign contributions to influential state reps and senators. You didn’t grease the chairman of the finance and tax committee. You don’t get to vote.

A bill that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall to allow property-tax exemptions for businesses that install solar panels, or other renewable energy devices, was snuffed out this week by the chair of the Florida House tax committee. Backers of the amendment claim that polls show some 90 percent of the voters support the notion. Voters, however, are an ever diminishing consideration in state government.

Florida’s electric power monopolies hate the amendment. They matter. Because, as you might have suspected after perusing your electric bill, they’ve got money to spend. And they know how to use it to manipulate a plutocracy.

The Miami Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas reported that the state’s three largest electric power providers have already invested more than $3 million in campaign contributions in this election cycle. Florida Power & Light fed the piggies $2.5 million, while TECO Energy and Duke Energy slopped the political trough with $754,000 and $390,000 respectively.

That’s what matters.

The solar amendment power play on Tuesday seemed all the more brazen, given that it unfolded just one day after Integrity Florida released a report noting that those three electric utilities and Gulf Power contributed more than $18 million to state candidates and party organizations between 2004 and 2012. The nonpartisan citizen watchdog report also found that the four companies spent $12 million on lobbyists since 2007. “These four corporations registered, on average, one lobbyist for every two state legislators each legislative session between 2007 and 2013,” the report noted.

That’s how the system works. You pay higher-than-average electric rates for this region. The companies then use your money to push through legislation designed to benefit shareholders, not you piddling ratepayers. That’s why you’ve been paying power companies an extra fee to offset future construction cost of nuclear power plants, no matter how unlikely the prospect. “Under the current regulatory scheme, customers are forced to pay billions of dollars of costs for power plants that may never be built in their lifetime. There is presently no process for consumers to recoup funds they have paid in the event that a company decides to abandon a proposal for a new plant,” the report noted.

Not to pick on the electric companies. Other big-money entities know the formula. Back in 2011, the Herald documented more than 70 deaths and a host of injuries over a 10-year period at assisted living facilities. The series prompted lots of public outrage, and legislators responded with bills that would foster a tough, new regulatory regime. But that’s not how the system works. The nursing home industry came up with $3 million in political contributions. The Florida Assisted Living Association hired a bunch of lobbyists. Three years later, ALF reform is hardly more than a fading memory.

Integrity Florida spelled out the new rule of governing. “Increasingly, the Florida Legislature sets its agenda and policy outcomes based on the needs of large political donors.”

The report noted how a large Budweiser distributor, after contributing $300,000 to candidates and political committees aligned with Senate President Don Gaetz, has been able fend off assaults on outdated container laws that are a disadvantage to the state’s craft beer brewers. This stuff about Florida government supporting small businesses is just so much guff. What matters is that craft brewers don’t have the money to compete with the likes of Bud.

All this is small beer compared to what’s coming. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court jettisoned the limits on what monied folk and corporations can spend on campaigns. Not that the previous limits did much to inhibit influence peddling — $48,600 on contributions to candidates during a two-year election cycle, plus $74,600 total for political parties and committees. But with no limits, the influence of the merely wealthy will wane before the billionaires.

This follows the court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, that allowed corporations — now granted personhood — to buy up elections. “If Citizens United opened a door,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer read from his dissent on Tuesday, “today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate.”

This is how we’ve come to have Wall Street lobbyists in Washington writing banking reform legislation, and nursing home lobbyists in Florida killing ALF reform. This is how the plutocracy works. They have money. You don’t.

Thomas Jefferson worried about this sort of thing.

“The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed incorporations,” he said.

If Jefferson was around today, he would added something about electric power monopolies and Budweiser beer.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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