Florida Politics

Florida voters to decide on solar tax break for businesses

Neil Black works on the installation of South Florida’s largest solar panel array atop the IKEA store in Miami, April 16, 2014. This is Ikea's 40th solar-powered project in the U.S. The 178,000 square foot solar array consists of 4,620 panels.
Neil Black works on the installation of South Florida’s largest solar panel array atop the IKEA store in Miami, April 16, 2014. This is Ikea's 40th solar-powered project in the U.S. The 178,000 square foot solar array consists of 4,620 panels. AP

Florida legislators voted Wednesday to put a clean energy amendment on the August primary ballot, allowing voters to decide whether or not to give businesses two different tax breaks when they install solar panels on their properties.

The proposed amendment, HJR 193, passed unanimously in both the House and Senate after sponsors moved the ballot question to the August 30 primary instead of the general election.

The House and Senate also passed a companion measure, HB 195, which will give the Legislature until 2017 to establish the rules to implement the tax credits if voters approve it. Under the amendment, lawmakers would be required to enact tax credits that exempt the assessed value of renewable energy devices from property taxes as well as exempt the products from the tangible personal property taxes by 2018. Once the tax incentives are in place, they will last for 20 years.

The proposed amendment is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, and has the support of the Florida Retail Federation, the Christian Coalition, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups whose members want the opportunity to install solar arrays on their properties. They have said that the existing tax laws serve as a disincentive for companies like Solar City to enter the Florida market by adding as much as five cents per kilowatt hour for solar energy.

“The proposal opens the door for significant expansion of solar and renewable energy production in Florida,” Brandes said in a statement Wednesday.

“Tourism — the biggest industry in Florida — will benefit from the energy savings that reducing taxes will offer,” said Richard E. Turner, General Counsel and Vice President of Government Relations for the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. “The power of the sun is one of the state’s greatest resources. It’s time we harness it to power our homes and businesses.”

Moving the amendment from the November to the August ballot was seen by supporters as an effort to avoid voter confusion. The state’s largest utilities have spent nearly $7 million to successfully delay an amendment proposed by clean energy groups that would allow property owners to install small-scale solar generation and sell it to neighbors. The utilities created a political committee, Consumers for Smart Solar, to push for a competing amendment that would retain the barriers to competition in energy generation.

The utility-backed amendment is opposed by solar advocates.

Brandes said he believes the public will support the amendment with an overwhelming majority.

But Dave Cullen, lobbyist for the Sierra Club, fears that by changing the ballot question to the primary and waiting a year to implement the bill, it will allow the powerful utility industry to delay the implementation if voters approve it.

“I think this is utility driven and they play hardball,” Cullen said. “When next session comes around will it be an opportunity for them to say: ‘only one-tenth of the electorate voted for this, we don’t need it.’ ”

Brandes has acknowledged the utility industry has “expressed concerns all along about this bill” because it allows for the expansion of solar to continue in Florida that is “out of their control.”

He told reporters that he “was shocked” that in spite of the utility’s industry’s influence in Tallahassee, he and Rodrigues were able to “get it across the finish line, given the strength of the utilities.”

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who worked as a lobbyist for Florida Power & Light before he served in the Senate, questioned why Brandes would put the amendment on the primary ballot.

“It’s a good idea, but the fact that it’s on the primary ballot when a lot of people are not voting ... that’s the wrong place to put policy,” Smith said.

Brandes responded that the general election ballot is “getting loaded up and there are already constitutional amendments on the ballot.”

“This is not a turnout issue,’’ Brandes said. “My goal is that we have a singular focus on this issue.”

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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