A Rare Win for the Little Guy?

Nov 6, 2016 by

Could David actually beat Goliath in Florida’s political arena?

Amendment 1, the deceptive utility-backed solar amendment, looked certain for passage this November. Voters who were polled overwhelmingly supported the amendment, mistakenly believing it was pro-solar.

True solar proponents were outgunned. The powerful and deep-pocketed group behind Amendment 1 was brilliantly devious in crafting the amendment language, which squeaked by Florida Supreme Court review on a 4-3 vote. Also, the backers had $22 million to spend.

Solar enthusiasts had almost nothing — and solar’s popularity was working against them as voters were tricked into believing the utility-backed amendment was pro-solar. What a bitter irony — the successful result of their decades of advocating for solar being turned into support for changing the Florida Constitution to restrict it.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducted a series of polls measuring support for Amendment 1. In its June 2016 poll, 77.3 percent of likely voters supported the ballot measure. In August the poll showed 81.4 percent support, and in September it grew to an incredible 84 percent. It takes 60 percent of the vote for a constitutional amendment to pass.

It was hard to fathom how this could be defeated. Even those enthusiastic about fighting it were getting discouraged. The polls were off the charts.

The utility-backed group sent out numerous glossy mailers — I got four — that painted this as mom and apple pie. Its TV ads blanketed the airwaves and were also top-quality deception — the best that money could buy. Heck, they even got crooner Pat Boone to record a robo-call to reach Florida’s seniors. Money was no object, and they smelled victory — a huge one.

Solar proponents screamed a little louder. The news media weighed in. Radio stations and some television stations started to air both sides of the issue. Columnists — including Carl Hiaasen — penned powerful and persuasive columns.

Word started to spread across social media. Jimmy Buffett — a strong environmental voice — even posted a video with a handmade sign saying “No on 1.” Popular former governor and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham came out forcefully against it.

A true low-cost grass-roots effort began. A few “Vote No on 1” signs popped up in yards and as icons on Facebook.

Many newspapers editorially opposed Amendment 1 — at least 23 papers, including the Orlando Sentinel, have already publicly called for its defeat.

Reporters published articles on the true intent of the amendment’s backers. Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau exposed how an insider revealed their strategy at a conference in Nashville.

Caught on tape, Sal Nuzzo, policy director at the James Madison Institute, which has worked with utilities, called it “an incredibly savvy maneuver” that “would completely negate anything the pro-solar interests would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road.” He called it a bit of political jiu-jitsu.

Nuzzo was offering advice to energy leaders in other states. He told them to use the language of promoting solar because it polls very well.

His comments confirmed what pro-solar Amendment 1 opponents had been claiming — the utility-backed effort was intended to restrict third-party sales of rooftop solar by misleading voters and making them believe, falsely, that Amendment 1 would expand solar use.

Klas also wrote about an 84-year-old voter named Barbara Waks who found out about the utilities’ strategy one day after she mailed in her ballot. Waks said she almost cried after finding out she was duped. She’s warning others.

The truth is out, word is spreading, and momentum is building.

The latest Saint Leo poll released on Monday shows support has dropped 24 percentage points to 59.8 percent — just under the 60 percent needed for passage.

Four additional facts were presented to the respondents supporting Amendment 1: You already have the right to own solar equipment; it may restrict your ability to lease solar equipment from third-party vendors; it may restrict your ability to send back excess energy to offset your costs; and it’s backed by Florida utility companies.

Each of the facts eroded support to some degree. When all four were taken into consideration, support for Amendment 1 dropped to 35.4 percent. The more voters know about it, the less they like it.

Perhaps that’s why the utilities just threw in another $3.5 million — bringing their total to $26 million. And they recruited the firefighters — beloved by voters — to be the new face of the amendment. A firefighter friend — who voted no — told me he was dismayed.

Ignore their clever ads. Help spread the truth. Don’t let the utility industry deceive you into supporting restrictions on solar expansion by disguising it as pro-solar.

Wouldn’t it be great for the little guy to win one?

Paula Dockery served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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