Audio obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute has confirmed that the Florida utility companies’ funded campaign, Consumers for Smart Solar, has been attempting to deceive voters into voting for Amendment 1 on election day.
The leaked audio reveals 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. See coverage of the story in the Miami Herald.
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.”
The audio is available here.
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.
SPN is a web of right-wing, state-based think tanks around the country which claim to push for “market-oriented solutions” but whose agenda often reflects the interests of its donors. SPN, along with the think tanks in its network, also receive money from foundations that are funded by the Koch Brothers, and two secretive groups called the “Dark Money ATM” of the conservative movement: DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund. JMI has received a total of $120,000 between 2012 and 2014 from the Charles Koch Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation. (See Charles Koch Foundation IRS 990 forms from 2012, 2013, 2014; Charles Koch Institute 990 from 2014.)
The Thomas Jefferson Institute is the SPN think tank in Virginia.
In addition to the Koch Brothers, JMI also has ties to Southern Company’s Gulf Power, which has spent $2.1 million backing Amendment 1. Allan 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.
According to Florida Department of State records, Florida Power & Light has spent $5.5 million supporting Amendment 1, Duke Energy has spent $5.7 million, Tampa Electric Co. has spent $3 million, in addition to Gulf Power’s $2.1 million. The remaining funds have come primarily from front groups, which are also funded by utilities and fossil fuel interests. Only $305 of the contributions have come from individual donors.
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 recently 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 mechanismfor 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 has been posting the JMI voter guide on their Facebook page, Twitter page, and has published it on their website.
Ironically, the voter guide concludes with JMI telling voters, “Stay informed Floridians, and we thank you for continuing to look to The James Madison Institute as a trusted resource now and in the future.”
The solar industry, environmental advocates, and editorial boards around the state have all argued that Amendment 1, if it passes, would be incredibly harmful to Florida’s solar prospects.
Florida Power & Light has said that it is not trying to deceive voters into thinking that Amendment 1 is pro-solar, contrary to Nunn’s remarks. FP&L President and CEO Eric Silagy defended Amendment 1 and denied assertions that it aims to confuse voters in a News Service of Florida article 6 days after Nuzzo made his remarks at the SPN Conference:
“It’s pretty clear,” Silagy said about the amendment on Oct. 8. “I don’t think there is anything sinister or nefarious…”