By JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Opponents of a controversial solar-energy ballot initiative asked the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday to again review the ballot language and to strike down the proposed constitutional amendment.
But a spokeswoman for Consumers for Smart Solar, a group sponsoring what is known as Amendment 1, was quick to call the request — filed with less than a week remaining in the campaign — “political grandstanding.”
The motion was filed Wednesday by attorneys for the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association and Floridians for Solar Choice, which are opposed to the proposal and have long contended that it is misleading.
The Supreme Court has to sign off on the language of proposed constitutional amendments before they can go on the ballot. Justices, in a 4-3 decision in March, approved the language of the Consumers for Smart Solar proposal, which is backed by electric utilities.
Wednesday’s motion for the Supreme Court to reconsider the approval is based heavily on an audio tape that emerged last month and included comments by Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy at the James Madison Institute. On the tape, first reported by the Miami Herald, Nuzzo described how to use a “little bit of political jiu-jitsu” in promoting solar to win support for desired changes in policy.
Critics of Amendment 1 called Nuzzo’s comments an admission of a “secret scheme by the pro-utility coalition to mislead the public,” about Amendment 1. In the motion, they said the Supreme Court should reconsider the March ruling, known as an advisory opinion, that cleared the way for the initiative to go on the ballot.
“The clear proof of the proponents’ deception and misrepresentation concerning the purpose and intent of Amendment 1 warrants relief in the form of vacating the advisory opinion and ordering new briefing on the issues raised by the previously undisclosed revelations as to the true purpose and intent of Amendment 1,” the motion said. “Upon further consideration, this (Supreme) Court should strike the proposed constitutional amendment for failing to inform the electorate of the ‘true meaning, and ramifications’ of the amendment.”
Nuzzo’s comments came while speaking Oct. 2 at the “Energy/Environment Leadership Summit” in Nashville, Tenn. The Tallahassee-based James Madison Institute has asserted that Nuzzo misspoke. Consumers for Smart Solar said the James Madison Institute wasn’t involved in planning or drafting the proposed constitutional amendment.
Sarah Bascom, a spokeswoman for Consumers for Smart Solar, dismissed the late-in-the-campaign legal move Wednesday.
“It is hard to comment on something we haven’t seen yet,” Bascom said in an email. “However, it seems as though this is just political grandstanding at its best to deter Florida voters from voting in favor of Amendment 1, which simply safeguards consumer rights, consumer protection and consumer fairness as we grow solar in Florida.”
The Consumers for Smart Solar amendment would enshrine in the Florida Constitution existing rules about the use of solar energy by private property owners. The proposal also includes a more-contentious provision, which states that people who haven’t installed solar on their property “are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do.”
Proponents say the second provision provides consumer protections for people who don’t install solar panels. But opponents argue it could result in “discriminatory charges” against rooftop solar users and limit the desire of people to go solar.
Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power have spent a combined $20.2 million in support of the amendment.
The Supreme Court does not rule on the merits of proposed constitutional amendments. Instead, it considers wording requirements, such as whether proposals are limited to a single subject and are unambiguous.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga was joined by justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston in supporting the Consumers for Smart Solar ballot language.
“When read within the full context of the ballot title and summary, none of the terms contained within the ballot title and summary are misleading and none of the terms constitute political or emotional rhetoric,” the majority opinion said in the March 31 ruling.
But Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a sharp dissent that opponents of the amendment have touted throughout the campaign and again pointed to on Wednesday.
“The ballot title is affirmatively misleading by its focus on ‘Solar Energy Choice,’ when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy,” Pariente wrote.
Constitutional amendments are required to receive support from 60 percent of voters for approval.
Stephen A. Smith, a board member of the opposition group Floridians for Solar Choice, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that he doesn’t expect the amendment to reach the 60 percent threshold. However, “as insurance,” opponents are taking the legal action because “the more we learn about the heavy-handed, monopolistic behavior of Florida’s largest utilities, the more concerned we’ve become.”