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February 26, 2016

Dark Money Fuels Florida Solar Energy Ballot Initiative Fight

By Alison Grass

On July 15, 2015, a group called Consumers for Smart Solar (CSS) announced a ballot initiative in Florida aimed at keeping electric utilities in charge of energy distribution, including solar-generated energy. Late last month, the group claimed enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot in 2016.

CSS’s effort was launched in response to a proposal by another group, Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC), seeking to legalize third-party-owned solar leasing to help accelerate distributed solar growth in Florida, which is viewed as a threat to the traditional business model of electric utilities. The fight, which pits electric utilities against a bipartisan coalition of tea partiers and environmentalists, has been fueled by significant sums from groups that are not required to disclose their donors.

FSC, which ran into challenges gathering enough signatures to make the November 2016 ballot, raised 86 percent of its $2 million in campaign donations from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, a nonprofit organization that is not required to disclose its donors. The rest came primarily from individuals, and a handful of solar and environmental groups. CSS’s campaign, which spent more than four times as much as FSC, has been scrutinized for being heavily fueled by big electric utilities, but less attention has been paid to the fact that more than a third of the group’s funding has come from nonprofits that don’t have to reveal their donors.

Though utilities contributed $4.3 million to CSS, the $2.8 million from nonprofits means that utilities and other energy companies might be responsible for an even larger proportion of the group’s budget. Some of the so-called dark money groups that have contributed to CSS have known ties to the utility industry.

For instance, one of the directors of Let’s Preserve the American Dream (LPAD), which contributed $840,000, is also the director of legislative affairs for the Florida Electric Cooperatives Association (FECA), a trade association that publically opposed FSC’s proposed measure. LPAD’s executive director, Ryan D. Tyson, is vice president of political operations for the Associated Industries of Florida, a pro-business lobbying organization whose PAC receives support from Florida Power & Light Company, the biggest electric utility in the state, and the third largest in the country.

The Virginia-based 60 Plus Association, a group that has worked with the Koch brothers’ political network, was CSS’s top dark money donor and the third largest donor overall, giving $1.1 million. In the past, 60 Plus has supported electric utilities in numerous state-level energy fights, and the group received funding in 2013 from the largest electric utility in Arizona, Arizona Public Service, to run ads attacking net-metering, a practice that makes home solar more affordable. The organization, which presents itself as a senior citizens advocacy group, argued that using a net-metering billing plan for solar would drive up rates for the elderly. The group made a similar argument in a press release praising CSS’ ballot initiative in Florida. In 2014, CREW filed an IRS complaint against 60 Plus for intentionally failing to disclose over $11 million in political activity from 2010 and 2012.

Checks and Balances for Economic Growth (CBEG), a nonprofit group with practically no public profile, gave CSS $420,965. During 2012 it ran online advertisements attacking President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) featuring miners from Murray Energy Corporation, a coal company, at a Mitt Romney rally. That same year it also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads in Ohio decrying “the war on coal.” Since the group doesn’t disclose its donors, it is unknown whether Murray Energy, or other coal companies, funded them.

Another nonprofit donor, giving $175,000 to CSS, was the Florida Faith and Freedom Coalition, a state chapter of the conservative, Georgia-based nonprofit, Faith and Freedom Coalition (FFC). The chairman of the Florida FFC, former Florida State Assembly member James “Jim” Kallinger, is also a chairman of CSS. The founder and chairman of the national FFC, infamous Republican strategist Ralph Reed, also has past energy industry ties. One of his prior gigs included running his Atlanta-based consulting group, Century Strategies, where he represented various multinational corporations, including Enron, who played a key role in the federal deregulation of electricity markets.

Other nonprofit donations to CSS’s campaign include $126,000 from Alabama-based Partnership for Affordable and Clean Energy (PACE) and $61,750 came from Floridians for Government Accountability (FGA). PACE was incorporated on February 27, 2009 by William D. Lineberry, an attorney who works at the law firm, Balch & Bingham, which lobbies on behalf of Southern Company and its subsidiary, Alabama Power. FGA is chaired by a former Duke Energy executive with ties to various fossil fuel organizations named Jim Hart. The group, which claims it exists to “educate the public and provide information on issues related to economic freedom, fiscal responsibility, and accountability in all levels and branches of government,” doesn’t list energy policy as one of its key issues on its website.  Energy and Social Justice Project, a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C., also gave $15,000.

Though it didn’t donate to CSS’s campaign, another political nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which has close ties to energy conglomerate Koch Industries, is supporting the group’s pro-utility push. AFP sent an e-mail to Floridians attacking the FSC’s ballot initiative, saying the measure was about “money, and using government and taxpayers to prop up the solar industry.”

FSC’s proposed measure would have enabled property owners to produce and sell up to 2 megawatts of solar power to others on the same or adjacent property. CSS’s measure, on the other hand, would continue allowing property owners to generate solar power for personal use, but the utilities would be left in charge of distributing all energy, including solar. Currently, Florida is one of 5 states to ban third-party-distributed solar practices.

FSC all but admitted defeat in January when it announced it would try again to place the proposal on the ballot in 2018. After spending $5.7 million – nearly triple FSC’s entire budget -- on signature gathering and verifying, CSS met its goal, and the measure will be on the November ballot. The fight has now moved into the courts, where the ballot measure’s language must be approved, and then to the voting public. There is no doubt that there will be plenty more money spent, from both disclosed and undisclosed sources, before voters have their say in November. 

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