Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida voters aren’t the ones confused about solar power

One can understand Pam Bondi’s worry that certain Floridians might misunderstand the solar power ballot initiative.

Not that she need concern herself with ordinary citizens. They know they’ll be voting on a constitutional amendment that would allow consumers to generate electricity from their own or leased solar panels and sell the excess — up to two megawatts a day — to adjacent businesses and property owners.

Voter comprehension won’t be the problem if the referendum makes it to the ballot in 2016.

But Attorney General Bondi has damn good reason to worry that some less ordinary Floridians might be confused. The state’s political leadership has often been flummoxed by citizen initiatives.

The gang in Tallahassee never quite understood the “polluter pay” amendment voters approved in 1996. The voter intent, obvious to anyone outside the Capitol chambers, was that Big Sugar, not taxpayers, should pay to repair the environmental damage that phosphorus-laced fertilizer runoff from sugar cane fields caused the Everglades.

Apparently, the concept was just too bewildering for lawmakers. The polluter pay amendment has never been enforced.

The class-size amendment approved in 2002 seemed similarly straightforward, but legislators have since contrived all sorts of ploys to cram more kids into classrooms.

Last fall, when 75 percent of the electorate voted for Amendment 1, voters understood the measure was meant to channel something like $300 million a year toward the acquisition of conservation land. Legislators took it to mean $17.4 million.

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that when the not-so-good old boys in the Legislature drew the latest congressional district maps, they seemed to forget about the 2010 Fair Districts Amendment approved by 63 percent of the voters. The 5-2 court majority said the new districts had been “tainted by unconstitutional intent.”

Bondi could hardly have been thinking of us when she filed her objections with the state Supreme Court last month complaining that the solar power ballot initiative was “unclear and misleading.” We don’t suffer comprehension problems. Ordinary Floridians not only understand the solar power issue, they grasp the urgent need to curtail dependence on fossil fuels. We know what a “yes” vote would mean. Bondi must have been referring to those dunderhead state legislators who never seem to fathom democratic intent.

A less charitable interpretation was that Bondi was only interested in protecting the profit margins of her good friends and political contributors from Florida’s electric utilities, who can’t abide solar power upstarts challenging their monopolies. On the very same day that the attorney general’s office filed Bondi’s anti-solar brief, similar objections were filed by Florida Power & Light Co., Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power Co.

The timing could have been just a coincidence. It also could have been a coincidence that, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, those same utilities have contributed $12 million to the campaigns of state elected officials since 2010.

Such political influence has helped keep Florida one of only four states that inhibit homeowners and businesses from striking lease deals with solar panel installers (leases can help consumers avoid prohibitive upfront purchase and installation costs), which explains why the Sunshine State derives such a piddling share of its electricity — less than 1 percent — from solar power. Only 6,600 homes and businesses in Florida are equipped with solar panels.

Voters, at least for the moment, understand what approval of the solar power amendment would mean. By Election Day, after utilities and their economic allies spend millions distorting the issue, who knows? The solar initative may come to look like a commie conspiracy.

Last month, the Florida League of Cities added its own brief to the objections to the solar amendment piling up at the state Supreme Court. The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas reported last week that the league’s legal stand set off protests from at least 17 elected officials from 13 cities who seemed stunned that the league would kowtow to the electric monopolies without consulting its members.

The utilities also persuaded the Florida Chamber of Commerce and (with the help of some generous contributions) a number of groups representing Hispanics and blacks to help them beat down the ballot measure. So now we have outfits like the National Black Caucus of State Legislators complaining that the solar power amendment would disadvantage poor minorities, who’ll be forced to pay extra to maintain the electric grid when rich white folks, their homes festooned with solar panels, go off-line.

Of course, in the two dozen states with less restrictive solar power laws, that hasn’t happened. Arturo Carmona, director of Presente.org, the nation’s largest online Latino organizing group, wrote in the Sacramento Bee last fall that in California laws encouraging solar power have “brought jobs and clean energy to our communities. Two-thirds of all rooftop solar installations are in middle- and low-income neighborhoods, creating more than 47,000 jobs in our state, 20 percent of them Latino.”

If the ballot measure survives the Supreme Court review, backers of the amendment will still need 683,149 valid signatures on their petition. (Last week, The Associated Press reported that they’ve gathered 94,000 so far.).

But voters will be barraged with advertising from utilities and fossil fuel interests worried that solar power will undo their very lucrative business plan. All that big money only needs to convince 41 percent of the electorate that solar is somehow a bad idea.

Even if the amendment passes — a long-shot proposition — the utilities can always count on the governor, the attorney general and their buddies in the Legislature to protect their interests and sabotage the solar power industry.

Up in Tallahassee, they have a long, ugly history of putting big money ahead of voter intent.

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