Florida's upcoming vote on a solar-related constitutional amendment is confusing. And supporters hope it stays that way.
As national election day nears, media outlets in the state are trying to help people understand what it means to vote "yes" or "no" on Amendment 1, a proposed change to the state's constitution backed by nearly $20 million from large energy companies.
The Yes on 1 website is adorned with images of solar-covered rooftops and a proclamation that the amendment "promotes solar in the Sunshine State."
The language itself seems fairly innocuous as well.
"This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall...ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do," it reads.
On its face, the amendment preserves the right to solar ownership while protecting non-solar customers from cost shifting. And to supporters of Amendment 1 -- a handful of free-market groups and big energy companies -- the language would create an equitable solar market in the state.
But in private, it's described a bit differently.
In a surreptitiously recorded speech first published by the Miami Herald, a free-market policy expert with inside knowledge of the Amendment 1 campaign described it as "political jiu-jitsu" meant to handicap solar advocates.
In a speech at an energy summit in Nashville earlier this month, Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy with the James Madison Institute, said the amendment would "completely negate anything [solar supporters] would try to do either legislatively or constitutionally down the road."
The tape was released by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Energy and Policy Institute -- two progressive pro-solar groups that have waged investigations of political spending in the utility industry.
Over the course of a 12-minute speech, Nuzzo detailed how the utility-backed group Citizens for Smart Solar co-opted solar's popularity and designed a public relations campaign to make voters think Amendment 1 will expand the solar market.
“To the degree that we can use a little bit of political jiu-jitsu and...use the language of promoting solar, and kind of, kind of put in these protections for consumers that choose not to install rooftop," said Nuzzo.
Nuzzo also poked fun at the pro-solar libertarian groups that made up the Green Tea Coalition. “They actually leveraged some of the less-savvy, less-informed tea party groups and formed what is now called the Green Tea Movement. God help us, we’re dead and destroyed," he said.
That didn't sit well with members of the Green Tea Coalition, who held a press call today in response to the tape.
"I was appalled by what I heard on the audiotape," said Debbie Dooley, founder of the group. "They attacked Green Tea Coalition members as being uninformed. We are standing true to the free-market, conservative principles of competition [and] choice. We support solar because we are very [informed] as a result of research we conducted."
The tape revealed the deep split among groups on either side of the solar amendment campaign. In his speech, Nuzzo said it had "led to an all-out war in the state of Florida."
In the lead-up to the November vote, news organizations across the state have called for a "no" vote on the amendment. "Every single editorial board is saying vote no for 1," said Nuzzo.
But he also said that editorial boards and pro-solar groups misunderstand the Amendment 1 campaign. "It's an outright lie. We're protecting...ratepayers," said Nuzzo.
Listen to the entire tape below. The Center for Media and Democracy has also cut up the tape into smaller excerpts and posted them to SoundCloud.
After this story was published, Bob McClure, the CEO of the James Madison Institute issued this statement:
"JMI has never worked with or received funding from Consumers for Smart Solar. We have released policy positions on both solar amendments and have publicly spoken on the pros and cons of each. At an event with an unfamiliar, national audience, Mr. Nuzzo generalized his commentary and misspoke in reference to JMI partnering with Consumers for Smart Solar in any capacity. JMI has played no role in their efforts. The Institute does have strong opinions about both amendments, which were expressed in this recording -- ones that we would repeat all over again if given the opportunity."