The debate in Tallahassee over the deregulation of Florida's power supply market is largely flying under the radar. But it's a very big deal.
There's an effort to get the utility deregulation amendment on the ballot for the 2020 election, and those behind it are having some trouble both legally and in sparking interest. Polling data has shown a stark resistance to the idea from voters. While the ballot issue against assault weapons grabbed most of the press last week, lawyers on both sides were before the state Supreme Court to argue the ballot initiative on energy.
At issue is the possibility of allowing out-of-state energy providers to come in and compete for customers in the energy-provider marketplace. For example, Infinite Energy is a natural gas provider and part of a consortium called Florida Energy Choice, seeking to have the Florida marketplace opened up so they can enter as a provider. One of the biggest hurdles for the initiative right now is the state law requiring single-issue presentation to voters on any ballot. The deregulation issue seems complex enough to defy such brevity on a ballot.
Attorney General Ashley Moody addressed this specific problem in a brief filed regarding the conflicting message that the ballot language would present. The proposed initiative would prevent any energy company from having control over the entire supply chain -- generating, transmission, and sale/delivery of power. One conflict that exists, however, is while selling this as a “choice” matter, a consumer is removed from being able to choose the same company for all three functions, if they desired.
What the AG was alluding to is a possibility of the voters being misled, because this is sold as a choice, while the likelihood is that many consumers -- or even most -- would lose the option to retain their current energy company, if desired. “The only thing that this initiative does is to take away the current electricity provider as a choice for over 75 percent of Floridians,” said Moody
This reality led to another snag in the process this week, as counsel for both sides of the issue were appearing before the Supreme Court. One of the lawyers for the energy lobby pushing for the ballot initiative seemed to step into an unforced error by essentially admitting to a problem in the language. During a question/answer exchange with a representative of Gainesville’s Infinite Energy Justice Robert Luck noted the very contradiction.
Starting at the 59:00 mark in the testimony here, Luck notes the proposal of any company being prevented to generate, transmit, and sell electricity. “I’m a company and I generate electricity...and I want to sell that electricity,” said the justice, proposing a hypothetical. “How is that not inconsistent with the right that’s now established to me by the ballot summary, that I can sell my own electricity?” Infinite’s representative, Warren Rhea was noticeably off balance here, and went on to say, “Actually, that’s a good point.”
“It’s rare when someone admits that. Thank you,” cracked Luck, to a chorus of laughter.
Polls regarding the utility options have been conflicting, but only if looked at statically. An initial poll released in June seemed to show decent support for the deregulation plan. The poll asked about a number of potential ballot initiatives, with one question regarding the utility breakup option. When asked, “Would you support a state Constitutional Amendment that would deregulate electrical utilities in Florida and allow customers to choose their electricity provider?" Sixty-six percent of respondents answered “Yes.”
In contrast, a new poll has been drawn up, instigated by the opposition group, Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy (FARE). This poll was a two-pronged effort to clarify voter desires. In one question FARE asked voters not about general approval, but used the actual proposed language on the ballot. They saw only a 40 percent approval return. Then they asked respondents how they felt with the notification that AG Moody had mentioned -- that 75 percent of customers would likely be compelled to switch to another provider. Support collapsed, down to just 21 percent saying they would approve the ballot measure.
The recent brush with Hurricane Dorian that Florida experienced has only made people more leery of change. Outside providers with a limited infrastructure are not viewed as being properly equipped to deal with that kind of calamity. It is another hurdle the “choice” proponents face, and they are already having problems clearing the prior hurdles.
Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.