Audio: Insider Reveals Deceptive Strategy Behind the 2016 Solar Ballot Amendment in Florida

Audio obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute in October 2016 and first reported by Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times confirmed that the Florida utility companies’ funded campaign, Consumers for Smart Solar, had been attempting to deceive voters into voting for Amendment 1 on election day.

Florida voters ultimately rejected the amendment major blow to the state’s largest investor-owned utilities, who poured more than $20 million into the political committee backing the initiative, Consumers for Smart Solar. A handful of other groups, which were also heavily financed by utilities, spent another $6 million promoting the amendment.

The leaked audio revealed a Koch Brothers-funded organization staffer speaking candidly about how it and other Amendment 1 funders successfully misled the public into believing it is pro-solar.

James Madison Institute’s Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy and director of the center for prosperity, said:

“The point I would make, maybe the takeaway, is as you guys look at policy in your state or constitutional ballot initiatives in your state, remember this: solar polls very well. To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and take what they’re kind of pinning us on and use it to our benefit either in policy, in legislation or in constitutional referendums if that’s the direction you want to take, use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop.”

James Madison Institute (JMI) is a think tank located in Tallahassee, Florida and a member of the national State Policy Network (SPN). Nuzzo was speaking to other SPN groups around the country at an event titled the “Energy/Environment Leadership Summit,” on October 2 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Summit is an annual event organized by the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy that takes place alongside the SPN annual meeting.

JMI has ties to Gulf Power, which has spent more than $2.1 million backing Amendment 1. Alan Bense serves as the chairman of JMI’s board of directors and is also a member of Gulf Power’s board. Stan Connally, the CEO of Gulf Power, also serves on JMI’s board. JMI additionally has ties to the Koch Brothers. It received a total of $120,000 between 2012 and 2014 from the Charles Koch Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation. (See CKF IRS 990 forms from 2012, 2013, 2014; CKI 990 from 2014.)

In the recording, Nuzzo acknowledged that a competing ballot effort that aimed to remove Florida’s ban on third-party sales of solar power enjoyed popular support, including from the political right:

“This amendment was actually polling in the 70s. Why? Because the Tea Party was behind it. We even saw some folks that we would normally play pretty well with, the Chambers of Commerce locally, the business community was kind of galvanizing behind it. Why? Because if you’re not a utility generating organization, this kind of helps you because it makes it a little bit easier for you to go that route and sell it [solar electricity].”

That legitimately pro-solar ballot initiative was backed by a coalition of environmentalists, solar advocates and conservative groups called the “Floridians for Solar Choice” in 2014 and 2015.

In response to the threat to their monopoly control of electric sales, utilities set up their own group in 2015, called “Consumers for Smart Solar.” Nuzzo described how the utilities, via Consumers for Smart Solar, responded to the threat to their monopoly by asking JMI to publish a study attacking the amendment, which it did in December of 2015.

“So Consumers for Smart Solar came to JMI and said you guys are, you know, the adults in the room. You’re the ones that have access to the research, to the scholars, to the State Policy Network, to a lot of the national organizations. We need some help because not only are they going to get the 700,000 signatures to get it on the ballot, it’s actually polling in the 70% range.”

JMI partnered with the Heartland Institute and a free-market researcher from Florida State University’s Devoe Moore Center to conduct research requested by the utility industry. The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based free market think tank that attacks the science behind global warming and routinely pushes for legislation weakening or repealing renewable energy policies. It has received contributions from fossil fuel corporations. The Heartland/JMI/FSU report concluded that the cost of maintaining the electricity grid would be shifted from solar customers to non-solar customers — yet it ignored the robust studies that quantify the values of solar power, which are substantial.

The Floridians for Solar Choice ballot initiative did not qualify for the 2016 ballot, thanks in part to deceptive ballot collection tactics employed by Consumers for Smart Solar.

Nuzzo went on to describe how Consumers for Smart Solar ensured that its ballot initiative would appear to be favorable for solar power, and how it was designed expressly to submarine the pro-solar effort from the coalition Floridians for Solar Choice:

“So Consumers for Smart Solar not only conducted the research but then also in what I would consider an incredibly savvy maneuver, they put forth their own constitutional ballot initiative. That ballot initiative also gathered the 700,000 signatures, but what it said was, individuals have the right to own solar equipment, they have the right to install solar equipment and lease it, they have the right to generate as much electricity as they can. It acknowledges net metering policies in the state.

“What they don’t have the right to do is generate their utilities for their – when the sun is out, and receive utilities from traditional utilities while shifting costs on to other ratepayers. So it essentially negated exactly what the challenge was and what Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Tom Steyer and all these other folks were after.”

Nuzzo’s JMI also published a Florida Amendment Guide. The section on Amendment 1 is not only slanted in favor of passage of the Consumers for Smart Solar proposal but also leaves out large amounts of information. The guide states that the only “con” to the passage of the amendment is, “Those who oppose the Amendment will claim the passage will create an environment not conducive to free markets saying the Amendment does not provide a mechanism for third party sales generated from consumers. However, that provision is a policy solution that can and should be handled by the Florida Legislature.”

Consumers for Smart Solar posted the JMI voter guide on their Facebook page, Twitter page, and published it on their website. However, you won’t be able to view those tweets anymore. The utility-funded campaign has been worked delete nearly all of the tweets and Facebook posts that feature JMI after Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times first reported the leaked audio recording.

Full clip of Sal Nuzzo: