TALLAHASSEE — Two competing ballot initiatives creating a constitutional right to rooftop solar energy are running out of time, raising doubts that Florida residents will get the chance to vote on either one in November.
The discussion over renewable energy sources likely will shift to the Legislature in January with several measures filed that would deregulate installation of solar panels and other alternative energy equipment and exempt them from property taxes.
But you can still expect to be accosted by name collectors for both groups at the local farmers market and shopping mall through January. Supporters of both measures are ramping up efforts to collect the 683,000 signatures each group needs to submit by Feb. 1 but both groups are pushing to get as many signatures in as possible by Dec. 31.
“Our goal is to get in as many signatures as we can by the end of the month,” said former Rep. Jim Kallinger, co-chair of Consumers for Smart Solar, backed by the solar energy industry and a coalition of green energy and anti-regulatory groups. “We’re just going to keep pushing hard.”
The utility-backed Consumers for Smart Choice needed 270,000 signatures as of Friday, and the group’s ballot language is still awaiting approval by the Supreme Court — something the rival group has vowed it would challenge.
Floridians for Solar Choice needed 411,000 more valid signatures as of Friday, but its ballot language has already been approved.
“Since the summer we have had an extraordinary campaign run against us by the monopoly investor-owned utilities to stop citizens from voting on this measure,” Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Florida, said during a teleconference Friday afternoon.
Their goal is to qualify for 2016, but if they don’t have enough signatures by Feb. 1, Smith said, they will shift their focus to getting on the 2018 ballot. “If for some reason we don’t qualify for 2016, these petitions don’t vaporize,” Smith said.
The group hit a snag this week when a California company that had been contracted to gather signatures refused to turn over 212,000 petitions over a payment dispute. All of those signatures have been paid for and should be submitted by the beginning of the year, Smith said.
The Feb. 1 deadline is still a long way off, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who specializes in state elections.
“It is even a good time for signature gathering, while people are heading out to the malls and parking lots,” Smith said. “It just depends what kind of money they want to throw at it.”
Money has been a big obstacle, with the utility-backed Consumers for Smart Solar outspending the Floridians for Solar Choice by a nearly four-to-one margin. Smart Solar has spent most of the $5.9 million it’s raised, paying signature collectors twice as much as the Solar Choice folks have spent. That group has spent $1.43 million of $1.49 million raised.
Consumers for Smart Solar has raised more money, by comparison, than Gov. Rick Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political action committee.
“These monopolies are spending more than the governor in opposing an effort that would bring jobs to the state,” Stephen Smith said.
Floridians for Solar Choice started its campaign first, after several attempts by solar advocates to get changes through the Legislature failed over the last few years. Their campaign was delayed by utility industry efforts to have the ballot language thrown out.
The group is trying to sell folks on the idea of a deregulated market for solar power that would allow them to enter into third-party purchase agreements to produce up to 2 megawatts of power they could sell to their neighbors.
Solar advocates say Florida’s regulations are keeping solar from growing. It is one of four states that currently prohibit third-party purchase agreements. Florida ranks third in solar rooftop potential, but 14th in actual installed solar capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Despite polls showing that 82 percent of Floridians want more solar energy, Floridians for Solar Choice have had a hard time conveying their message. A Mason-Dixon poll over the summer showed the utility-backed amendment drawing stronger support among voters, who found the solar industry’s amendment language confusing.
“Having two competing measures has the intent of sewing confusion,” UF’s Daniel Smith said. “The intent is to make it more difficult for the other one to qualify.”
If either gets on the ballot, they’d have a good chance of passing, even though they do very different things, Daniel Smith said.
The Consumers for Smart Solar initiative would codify existing state law, guaranteeing the right of people to install solar equipment on their homes for personal use and ensuring that state and local governments retain regulatory authority.
“From Day 1, our objective has been to promote a plan to advance solar energy while protecting consumers,” said Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Consumers for Smart Choice. “Their apparent failure doesn’t change our objective.”
Even if they get enough signatures to get on the ballot, Stephen Smith said, he doesn’t think the wording of the Consumers for Smart Choice measure will pass the scrutiny of the Florida Supreme Court, which requires a single-subject issue and unambiguous language.
“In the long run, theirs will not get on the ballot,” he said.
Kallinger with the solar industry group said he believed the Supreme Court would ultimately approve their ballot language. “We are confident it does meet the single-subject requirement and is clear,” he said.
Whatever the future of the competing ballot initiatives, Stephen Smith said, he looks forward to the coming legislative discussions on renewable energy.
A Senate joint resolution by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, would exempt solar panels and other renewable energy devices as tangible taxable property and prohibit property appraisers from evaluating them for taxable purposes. A companion House resolution was filed by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers.
Another House bill, filed by Reps. Fred Costello, R-Port Orange, and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, would restrict the way counties and cities can regulate renewable energy equipment.
“There is a real chance for thoughtful policy discussions,” Stephen Smith said. “We look forward to the session and a robust and useful conversation.”
Tory Perfetti, a Tampa Bay area conservative activist who chairs Floridians for Solar Choice, said public opinion has changed since the campaign began a year ago, particularly on the conservative side.
“The number of individuals willing to discuss more open energy policy has been remarkable,” Perfetti said. “I think they will take hard look at opening the energy policy to allow more choice.”
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