After careful consideration at public meetings, multiple Tea Party and conservative groups have voted to oppose a Florida constitutional amendment giving the solar power industry special rights to sell power directly to electricity consumers and to utilities.
These votes are a significant setback for the solar power industry in the state.
When Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC) launched its initiative in January to place a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot to allow nonutility solar power providers to install solar panels on homes and sell the power generated directly to them, they initially gained support from some business owners, libertarians, liberal environmental activists, and Christian conservatives.
As grassroots activist groups have learned more about the amendment, support for it has waned.
Project 912 Debate Begins Losses
Three prominent grassroots organizations have hosted debates on the proposed amendment, beginning with a March 2015 debate hosted by the Tampa 912 Project, which with 2,000 members is one of Florida’s most influential grassroots organizations.
Tory Perfetti, chair of Floridians for Solar Choice, spoke on behalf of the amendment, and Heartland Institute Senior Fellow James Taylor spoke against it.
Before the debate, members’ comments on Tampa 912 Project’s message board indicated overwhelming support for the amendment. During the debate, Taylor pointed out the amendment would leave existing utility monopolies firmly in place, with the only change being the heavily subsidized solar power industry would get its own monopoly on on-site power sales.
“Rather than striking a blow for free markets and against utility monopolies, the proposed amendment adds a new monopoly overlord with a long and notorious history of fighting against free markets,” Taylor said at the debate.
After the debate, member comments on the Tampa 912 Project message board overwhelmingly opposed the proposed amendment, and on April 13, 2015, the organization’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it.
“It is the unanimous decision of the Board of the Tampa 912 Project to not support the solar energy ballot initiative to amend the Florida Constitution,” said the Board.
Concerning the decision, Tampa 912 Project cofounder Karen Jaroch said, “All the other crony special treatments aside, attendees were sold on the point that the Florida Constitution, a document that guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech, is not a proper vehicle for carve-outs to the solar industry.”
Tea Party Group Joins Opposition
At a June Tea Party meeting held at the popular retirement community The Villages, Taylor debated a representative of the Libertarian Party of Florida. A show of hands called for by The Villages’ Tea Party President Aileen Milton after the debate resulted in a unanimous vote against the amendment.
During the debate at The Villages, Taylor presented a transcript of a National Public Radio interview in which Catherine Baer, the president of the Tea Party Network, said she supported the amendment. Baer also claimed she represents more than 80 Florida Tea Party groups linked on her site, including The Villages Tea Party.
Milton expressed outrage at Baer’s assertion during the debate, and in an e-mail written to Baer after the debate, which was shared with Taylor, Milton wrote, “Please remove The Villages Tea Party’s name from your member groups. Immediately.
“You have no authorization to say The Villages Tea Party supports the concept of changing/amending the Florida State Constitution by adding a ballot issue in 2016 on the Solar Energy issue,” Milton wrote. “And I will tell you, Catherine, we do not support the Solar Energy Amendment.”
At the July 16 meeting of Tea Party Manatee, following a heated exchange between two lobbyists praising the solar amendment and Tampa 912 project’s Jaroch and Taylor who critiqued it, Tea Party Manatee followed the lead of the Tampa 912 project and the Villages Tea Party in voting unanimously to oppose the solar amendment to the Florida Constitution.
“I have had the privilege of participating in Tea Party or 912 Project point-counterpoint discussions on the proposed constitutional amendment three times,” Taylor said. “At the end of each meeting, each group’s members voted unanimously to oppose the amendment.
“These results show Tea Party groups do not support the creation of solar power monopolies,” Taylor said.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.