Investor-owned utilities continued to spend heavily in Florida state elections this cycle, donating over $9.2 million dollars in total, with much of it going to Republican candidates or committees. The majority of political contributions went directly to political committees, with the biggest recipient being the Republican Party of Florida Executive Committee, which raked in over $1.5 million from utilities. The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (FRSCC), a separate but affiliated entity, received nearly $1.5 million in political contributions from utilities this election cycle.
The FRSCC spent at least $34,073,460 this cycle, according to campaign finance records through the end of October, the last pre-election deadline. Over $1.8 million was earmarked specifically for the Senate races in districts 3, 9, 37, and 39, some of which now face multiple investigations, both at the local and state level. The expenditures included extensive polling, research, consulting, and staff for those races. The bulk of FRSCC’s total spending went to TV and digital advertising and direct mail for candidates not specified in campaign finance reporting, with over $19.3 million reported for media buys, media production, and digital advertising, and over $7.5 million for direct mail.
Many of the FRSCC dollars ended up in the campaign for Senate District 37, where incumbent Democrat Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez was ousted by 32 votes in a recount. Rodriguez has championed climate action efforts and been one of the most vocal critics of Florida’s investor-owned utilities in the legislature. That District 37 election, along with the races for Districts 9 and 39, could face investigations by the Florida Department of State or the Florida Elections Commission due to concerns over dark money backing the unknown No Party Affiliation (NPA) candidates. An ethics complaint has also been filed against the District 37 NPA candidate by Juan Carlos Planas, an elections attorney who represented Jose Javier Rodríguez during the recount. The NPA candidates in all three races were supported by mailers paid for by dark money connected to a “social welfare” organization called Proclivity, as originally reported by Politico and the Miami Herald in October. Proclivity, registered in Delaware with a UPS store address in Atlanta, funded over half a million dollars worth of mailers that appeared to target progressive voters, in an apparent effort to siphon votes from the Democratic candidates.
In District 37, NPA candidate Alex Rodriguez managed to garner over six thousand votes, likely costing the incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez his seat, despite no direct campaign activity. The mailer, sent out on his behalf by a brand new political committee called Our Florida PC, was the only known campaign activity that occurred. Our Florida also sent mailers to Senate District 39 voters supporting NPA candidate Celso Alfonso. The only reported funding for this political committee came from Proclivity. Proclivity also donated to a second political committee, The Truth PC, which sent out mailers in Central Florida on behalf of an unknown NPA candidate, Jestine Iannotti, in the Senate District 9 campaign.
According to a report by the Miami Herald, “Under Florida law, an entity must register as a political committee if it accepts more than $500 in a calendar year for electoral or political purposes. If Proclivity is deemed to be a political committee under Florida law, it could face administrative penalties or misdemeanor charges.” Proclivity has not disclosed its 990 federal tax filings, and neither Our Florida or The Truth PC committees have filed campaign finance reports since the first week of October, despite receiving letters warning of financial penalties for not reporting.
Rumored support from disgraced former Senator Atiles, known friend of NextEra and FPL
Former Senator Frank Artiles took credit for placing the unknown NPA candidate in the race for Senate District 37, according to a source who “asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation” as reported by Miami Herald earlier this week. Artiles has a checkered past and was pressured to resign from office in 2017 over multiple scandals, ranging from racial slurs about his fellow lawmakers to hiring a playboy model as a political consultant. As a former chairman of the Florida Senate’s Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee, Artiles fast-tracked pro-utility bills, including one that would have allowed NextEra to charge its Florida customers for exploratory fracking in Oklahoma, an attempted run around a Florida Supreme Court ruling against Florida Power & Light (FPL) on the matter. In 2017, Artiles ended up in the headlines over his ceremonial role at a NASCAR event sponsored by NextEra, where he waved the starting flag in a NextEra branded jacket, pictures of which ended up on his Facebook page.
Artiles accepted over $30,000 from Florida utilities in political contributions throughout his time in office, with $6,000 from NextEra, $4,500 from TECO, and $4,000 from Duke in direct candidate contributions, in addition to the funds donated to his political committee, Veterans for Conservative Principles, which received nearly $13,000 from NextEra (including an $1,997 in-kind donation for an event) and $5,000 from Duke.
Artiles currently resides in Miami as a consultant and lobbyist and has submitted an application to fill a vacancy on the Miami-Dade County Commission, according to the Miami Herald.
Florida utilities invested heavily in status quo, concentrating donations on Republican Party and committees associated with AIF
Out of the $9,255,868 in utility political contributions this cycle, $6,672,508 was concentrated among the top fifteen committee recipients, five of which are linked to or controlled by the same group, Associated Industries of Florida (AIF).
The Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign topped the list of largest recipients, with $1,596,443 and $1,466,793 from utilities respectively. Third with $485,000 was the PAC for AIF, which supports Republicans. Fourth was a separate PAC with close ties to AIF, Floridians for a Stronger Democracy, with $417,000. Floridians for a Stronger Democracy is chaired by Ryan Tyson, a chief political strategist for AIF. Fifth, the Florida Prosperity Fund PAC, brought in $397,000.00 from utilities and is also associated with AIF, as was the seventh-largest recipient of utility funds, the Floridians United for Our Children’s Future PAC with $362,000.00 in utility contributions. Number eight on the list is also linked to AIF, Voice of Florida Business Political Action Committee, and received $247,000, bringing the total for those five AIF committees to over $1.8 million. AIF and its associated committees in turn donated $3,621,000 to the FRSCC.
Incoming Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson was a top recipient of utility contributions, with his Jobs For Florida PAC accepting $220,000. Incoming Republican Speaker of the House Christ Sprowls accepted $85,000 from utilities via his PAC, Floridians for Economic Freedom, as well as $1,000 from both TECO and Duke as direct candidate contributions to his campaign. Republican Representative Paul Renner, who is in line to be Speaker of the House from 2022-2024, received $109,930 in utility donations via his PAC, Conservatives For Principled Leadership, as well as $1,000 from TECO and $2,000 from Duke directly.
Florida utilities’ support of candidates is often indirect, whereby a number of utility-funded, cash-rich political committees donate to the campaign fund in addition to or instead of the utility company donating directly. In the Senate District 37 race, newly elected Republican Ileana Garcia did not have any direct contributions from Florida utilities, but the biggest donor to Garcia’s political committee, No More Socialism, was a PAC called Advancing Florida Agriculture, which donated $55,000 to Garcia’s committee. Advancing Florida Agriculture received $20,000 from FPL and $5,000 from Duke this cycle.
Democratic candidates and committees received utility contributions throughout the cycle too, although at a smaller scale compared to Republicans. The Florida Democratic Party received $283,541 in utility contributions, and the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign received $160,000. The Florida Alliance for Better Government committee received $110,000 and is directly associated with former Florida Democratic Party chair and current U.S. Sugar and FPL lobbyist Screven Watson.
Upcoming 2021 legislative session could see a number of utility-related bills
Legislators may consider a number of utility issues in the 2021 session, which starts early next year, including the state’s net metering policy. That policy came under fire earlier this year when Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure and a utility front group, Energy Fairness, prodded the Florida Public Service Commission to hold a workshop on it.
This year’s election results further solidified the decades-long Republican “trifecta” of control in Tallahassee, with comfortable majorities in the Senate and House and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis in office for two more years. The GOP control spills into the PSC as well, with DeSantis having appointed Republican and former Rep. Mike La Rosa earlier this year. Throughout his term, La Rosa has received thousands in donations from Florida utilities, including $4,000 from NextEra Energy, $4,000 from TECO, and $5,500 from Duke Energy.
Header Image Source: Steve Litz NBC 6 Facebook Video of Senate District 37 Recount