November 30, 2016

Amendment 1: The Big Utility Showdown

The largest utilities in Florida bankrolled Consumers for Smart Solar and Amendment 1. They want to maintain their monopoly control over energy in the State. Amendment 1 was looking to suppress competition from rooftop solar via constitutional ballot amendment. Thankfully, those in Sarasota and Manatee Counties as well as the rest of Florida saw through the ruse and voted it down on Election Day 2016. However, the story of Amendment 1 is a bit more complicated and Machiavellian, pitting the corporate and financial power of Big Utilities against the Power of the People.

As it stands now in Florida, only utilities can sell power to retail customers. Due to this restriction, landlords cannot sell power from solar panels to their tenants. It also effectively shuts down solar leasing. With leases, an outside company pays the high upfront cost of solar panels, and their customers sign long-term contracts to buy the power. Such leasing has made residential solar the fastest-growing part of the U.S. solar market. But it is simply not legal in Florida. Each utility has monopoly control of the sales and distribution of electricity. 

For many years, both citizens and politicians have wanted to open up the utility monopolies to competition from solar companies. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting interviewed Paige Kreegel, who was a State Representative back in 2009. He was chair of the state House’s Committee on Energy. He considered himself a free-market Republican and he wanted to get government out of the way of the growing solar industry. But the rest of the Committee Members wouldn’t touch solar energy and he found himself an outsider on the Energy Committee he chaired. It turns out that Florida’s utility companies have heavily funded Florida political campaigns - to the tune of $12 million between 2010 and 2015. Those donations included contributions to every member of the Florida Senate and House leadership and a whopping $1.1 million to Governor Rick Scott's 2014 reelection campaign. According to State Sen. Jeff Brandes, “Here’s how the power companies control the Legislature: they ask the chairman of committees to never meet on the issue.”

To circumvent the lack of action in the Florida legislature, Floridians for Solar Choice attempted to place a constitutional amendment on the Florida ballot. They needed close to 700,000 petition signatures to get it on the ballot. With funding from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Floridians for Solar Choice hired a petition gathering firm. They collected enough signatures to have the ballot wording reviewed by the Florida Supreme Court. That's when the monkey business started. Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, delayed sending the petition to the Florida Supreme Court for 30 days, the maximum allowed by law. This gave the Big Utilities time to ramp up their opposition briefs to fight the initiative in court.
Nonetheless, the wording of the Solar Choice initiative held up before the scrutiny of the Court. So the Big Utilities fired up a campaign of deception to confuse Florida voters about the initiative. The upshot was a competing amendment, the so-called Smart Solar amendment.

To explain the context for this competing initiative, Amendment 1, it might help to consider my roof. My roof is covered with solar panels. We have enough that we started producing slightly more electricity than we use. You may not be surprised to learn that FPL required us to maintain gobs of liability insurance, FPL required us to install specific disconnect options to assure the safety of their workers, and the City required a permit and follow-up inspection. But you may be surprised to learn that we still get an electric bill from Florida Power & Light (FPL). Every month for many months, we have been paying $9.42 to make use of the electrical grid, even though our net electricity use is less than zero. Monthly payments seem fair to me. We don't need a backup battery and FPL distributes our excess electricity to our next door neighbors, so FPL is providing a service. Is it a fair amount? I have no idea.

After hearing about my roof, it is immediately apparent that all of the so-called consumer protections provided by Amendment 1 are already in place in Florida. There is no need to clutter up Florida's constitution with language about allowing me to install solar equipment on my property. I can already do this. No need for the constitution to allow a charge for my use of the electric grid. FPL already charges me. No need for the constitution to require safe solar. FPL would not have allowed me to connect to the grid had I not followed their safety requirements. So why did the largest utility companies in Florida spend over $26 million on this amendment? The Amendment 1 provisions sounded pro-solar and pro-consumer, but in reality they were merely an attempt to protect the pro-monopoly status quo and bollocks up any future pro-solar attempts. There will be no rooftop solar revolution in Florida if the Big Utilities have anything to say about it.

It's going to be hard to follow the rest of the story because the protagonist, Floridians for Solar Choice, and the antagonist, Consumers for Smart Solar, sound like they are on the same side. Indeed, confusion and deception were an integral part of the utility-backed Smart Solar strategy. A leaked audio from Sal Nuzzo of the James Madison Institute speaking at the State Energy/Environment Leadership Summit spilled the beans about their strategy. He said that utilities created Amendment 1 as an act of “political jiu-jitsu” to “negate” the efforts of solar advocates.

At this point in the tale (2015), both the Solar Choice folks and the utility-backed Smart Solar folks were out collecting petitions. They had hired different firms to help gather signatures, but these firms had hired some of the same people to do the gathering. So one person was potentially gathering signatures for both petitions. And here's the kicker. When Solar Choice paid $1/signature, utility-backed Smart Solar paid $2. Then when Solar Choice upped their payments to $2/signature, utility-backed Smart Solar upped theirs to $4. If you were out collecting signatures, which one would you ask people to sign first - the one that pays $2 or the one that pays $4. And in fact, that's exactly what folks on the street reported. On October 24, 2015, the Gainesville Sun published a letter from Greg Fussell,
"Recently as I was leaving the University of Florida’s Health Science Center, a young man asked me to sign a petition for solar power. As I’m reading through the petition, I recognized that it’s the Consumers for Smart Solar (CSS), a utility-sponsored petition, and not the Floridians for Smart Choice (FSC), which I prefer. 
When I said I won’t sign it, it’s not my preference, he handed me the FSC petition. Now, I’ve never had that happen where one person had competing petitions. Consequently, I was compelled to ask why he handed me the CSS version first and not the FSC version. Wait for it — He said, “I get paid more for the CSS version.” 
I was disappointed to see how this played out, and as I watched, most that signed the petition signed the CSS utility-sponsored petition. I’m convinced it was because it was handed to them first." 

Julie Delegal in Jacksonville reported asking a "signature-collector straight up whether he was representing the utilities-backed amendment, he told me his was the one I wanted to sign, and emphasized the 'pro-consumer' aspects of the amendment. I didn’t sign, and I tore up my husband’s signature form before he could finish it."

Despite the reported confusion between the two amendments, the Florida Supreme Court went ahead and permitted the wording of the utility-backed Smart Solar amendment. This was a dismal failure on the part of the Court. Their job is to ensure that such ballot amendments are not ambiguous. Justice Barbara Pariente, wrote in her dissent, "Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware."

If two competing amendments appeared on voter ballots and they both looked pro-solar, the voters might be fooled into voting yes for both. But such a ballot was not meant to be. As of December 2015, the signature gathering company, PCI, was withholding 212,000 signed petitions. It was awaiting payment of expenses that the Solar Choice folks claimed were above what they had agreed to pay. Instead of getting signatures, the Solar Choice folks filed a lawsuit. And they missed the petition deadline for 2016. Floridians for Solar Choice would be aiming for the 2018 ballot. Meanwhile in November 2016, there would only be one amendment on the ballot - the utility backed Smart Solar amendment, now known as Amendment 1.

To make matters more confusing there was another pro-solar amendment on the August 2016 primary ballot. Amendment 4 allowed businesses the same property tax exemption for solar equipment, currently enjoyed by individuals. Most of us in Sarasota and Manatee Counties and across Florida support solar power and believe Florida, with its abundant sunshine, should be leading the way. Most of us would want to vote Yes on 4 in August and No on 1 in November. But that doesn't make for a memorable campaign slogan.

While Florida's pro-solar advocates were waiting for the August primary to wrap up, the utility-backed Smart Solar folks were racking up endorsements, but not in the traditional manner. According to the Energy and Policy Institute, the Big Utilities filtered money through non-profits in an attempt to make it appear like they had broad support. Five such groups are Let’s Preserve the American Dream, the 60 Plus Association, Partnership for Affordable Clean Energy, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The following chart, accurate as of October 28, shows the amounts flowing directly from the Big Utilities and indirectly, through their non-profit donation-intermediaries.

From an Energy and Policy Institute article

After Amendment 4 passed in August, a coalition of pro-solar activists rolled up their sleeves to defeat utility-backed Amendment 1. Local environmental groups headed by the Sierra Club banded together with solar contractors and Tea Party conservatives to educate the citizenry. In Sarasota, the call went out to hit popular venues, such as farmer's markets, with No-On-1 informational pamphlets. Twenty seven newspaper editorial boards came out in opposition to Amendment 1. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, and Green Party groups came out against. When Early Voting started, Amendment 1 opponents talked to voters and handed out pamphlets at voting sites. And those red No-On-1 signs popped up all over town in very prominent spots. Such grassroots action took place in Sarasota and other hotspots across the state.

Meanwhile, Florida's Big Utilities were worried. They donated additional millions to the campaign in order to run more television ads and send more slick mailers. On October 10th, the Florida Professional Firefighters endorsed the utility-backed Amendment 1. There was no vote by the affiliated firefighter membership; just an endorsement. Smart Solar went into overdrive featuring firefighters in hundreds of television ads implying that rooftop solar panels could be a fire hazard.

The firefighter's endorsement must have been a backroom deal at the leadership level, because rank and file firefighters opposed the amendment. On November 4, the Florida Professional Firefighters reversed their endorsement. They said they had

"communicated with hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters over the last few weeks regarding their concerns with Amendment 1 and the real firefighter safety issues related to solar energy systems. It is clear to the elected Executive Board of this organization that our membership would prefer to pursue any future firefighter safety regulations related to the still developing alternative energy industry through legislative or rulemaking action, as opposed to a constitutional amendment that many believe to be misleading. We have requested that Consumers for Smart Solar stop broadcasting advertisements featuring firefighters and/or the logo of the Florida Professional Firefighters." 
Bravo for the Union. Unfortunately the ads kept running.

Election Day served a sweet victory to those opposing Amendment 1. Anti-solar wording will not be inserted into the Florida Constitution (yet). Grassroots efforts won the day.  But given the level of political involvement by Big Utilities, we may be confronted with a similar proposal down the road. 

Let's review that involvement. By October 28th, the Big Utilities had donated over $26 million to the Consumers for Smart Solar campaign. There are a few additional things that gall me about this. They call themselves Consumers for Smart Solar. Here's a question. How many of their donors were actually consumers? Twelve. Those 12 consumers donated a total of $305. But even that is overblown, since 11 of those 12 consumers worked for or lived with consultants of Consumers for Smart Solar. That leaves one lone consumer. How much did that consumer donate? Ten dollars. Evidently as of October 28, of the $26,118,915, only $10 was collected from an actual unaffiliated consumer.

The second galling item revolves around the non-consumer donors to the campaign - the Big Utilities. In Florida, they are monopoly utilities. That is to say, I can't go pick a different electric company; I must buy from the one in my area. If I don't like the political activity of my electric company, I am not free to choose another one. They can charge me to build a nuclear power plant and then not build it. Duke Energy did this with their Levy County plant. Duke Energy's Florida ratepayers had no recourse; they had to stay with Duke Energy. That means that Florida utility ratepayers are footing the bill for this campaign. FPL claims that it is shareholders who pay these costs, but if I were a shareholder that wouldn't sit well with me. And even so, where do shareholders derive such funds? Why from the ratepayers of course. Accounting sleight of hand might show that ratepayers did not fund this campaign, but that is mere chicanery.

Just to add a little jalapeno pepper juice to the wound, yesterday the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) approved a rate increase requested by my electric company, FPL, to the tune of $811 million. In my ideal world, the PSC would have rejected the rate hike and told FPL to start planning for backup electric generation for the day when 75% of our electricity comes from renewable sources. They certainly have a lot to do and, in my ideal world, none of it would be political. But back to reality. After directly spending $8 million on the failed anti-solar Amendment 1, they are now raising rates. And without responding to any of the issues raised by opponents, the PSC approved the rate hike unanimously. That is probably no coincidence. All of the members of the PSC were either appointed or reappointed by Governor Scott. And remember, Florida's Big Utilities donated $1.1 million to Governor Scott's most recent reelection campaign.

There were some beautiful moments in this campaign. A highlight was the grassroots effort that eventually took down Amendment 1, despite its massive funding. But this type of effort takes us away from the positive work many of us want to be doing. Given the size of Big Utilities and the Big Money they are willing to distribute to every nook and cranny of our political system, everyday people's concerns do not stand a chance. When people talk about wanting to get money out of our elections, Amendment 1 would serve as a prime example why. But campaign finance reform only goes so far. Florida's Big Utilities have permeated the Governor's office, the Public Service Commission, the Florida Legislature, non-profits that sound like they represent racial minorities and seniors, and perhaps even the Firefighter's Union Leadership. They maneuvered around the Florida Supreme Court and ran television ads that shamelessly disregarded the truth about rooftop solar safety. Should they even be allowed to put a self-serving initiative on my ballot? Should they be allowed to charge me for such a campaign? Should they be allowed to work against sound environmental policies, by opposing solar energy and going against the wishes of the vast majority of Floridians? Citizens and legislators need to have the ability to take corporate power down a notch, if they see fit.

The story of Amendment 1 is just one data point. There are thousands of others. They all point to the difficulty we have maintaining our democracy, when corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government. Due to several U.S. Supreme Court rulings over the last 130 years, our democracy is under siege. We need a constitutional amendment explicitly stating that money is not speech and that corporations and other artificial entities do not have constitutional rights.

November 22, 2016

Let Me Count the Ways We Count the Votes

Photo Credit: Corey Taratuta 
Some of us are idealists and still cling to the notion that we live in a democracy where we-the-people elect representatives to govern on our behalf. At the national level, this notion was debunked a couple of years ago. A study by Martin Gilen and Benjamin Page found that
"economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." 
And yet I am still left with the feeling that if I don't vote, I give away my power. So I educate myself and I vote each and every election. In so doing, I fully expect that my vote will be counted and counted correctly.

We learn to count at an early age. Having taken part in the process with my own children, I don't even think we need to be taught. The idea of one versus two versus three seems intuitive. And yet counting large numbers of votes is problematic. So far we've counted over 125 million votes for President, and we're still counting. It takes a lot of time to count that many votes. And when we use any kind of mechanical and/or electronic devices, there is the potential for mechanical and/or electronic glitches. Even if there is no cheating involved, problems crop up.

How is one to distinguish between straightforward problems, counting errors, and outright fraud? Alas this is no mere rhetorical question. I will share with you a report of what happened on November 8, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida, where I voted.

November 3, 2016

Battle of the Sexes, Campaign Style

Since presidential candidates and their surrogates tend to swing through the swing state of Florida, I have the opportunity to attend them on a regular basis. Once was enough for me. It felt like a cheerleading rally before a football game. Since then I have been struck by the similarities between presidential campaigns and sporting events. Last week as I listened to yet another bizarre interaction between the two presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I had a flashback to 1973. The Battle of the Sexes was the epic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign are eerie.

October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.

Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes.

September 25, 2016

Can a Different Voting System Improve our Democracy?

After watching the Presidential nominating process over the last year, I find it puzzling that this system ever worked. Going in, I had some vague notion that primaries and caucuses were a mechanism to make the nominating process more democratic. They were to give the party’s rank and file more control over who ends up on the ballot in November.

Given the outcome of the 2016 nomination process, this perspective is in tatters. More than anything, media attention seemed to drive the results. The Democratic Party leadership actively colluded with the media to disparage Sanders. Quite the opposite in the Republican Party. The Party had no mechanism to counter Trump and his showmanship, even though many of his positions ran counter to many positions held by most Republicans. And other Parties were rarely covered by the media at all.

So, if not media attention, what are the values that should drive the design of the nominating process? Off the top of my head I would say -
  • make the process more democratic and more inclusive
  • find out exactly where candidates stand on the issues (and ditch all the negative campaigning)
  • craft a ballot with candidates who each represent different points of view, and 
  • (based on my personal pet peeve) spend a month or less making the nomination decisions

It seems to me that the first item is achievable, but the rest are more pie in the sky. So how might we improve the current voting system so as to foster more inclusivity and democracy? In the not too distant past, I had naively thought that the way I vote was how all voting takes place. Each citizen gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. It turns out that there are many ways to run an election. They all have their pitfalls and their strengths. Thankfully, I didn't have to wade through volumes of scholarly political science journals to get to the bottom of it. I found some entertaining YouTube videos that explain some of these systems.

Call me a spoon-fed learner, but it was fun to think about the first election in the Animal Kingdom, in which the race was between a turtle, a gorilla, a snake, a tiger, a monkey, an owl, and a leopard. 

August 23, 2016

A Sign in My Yard

I might vote for Hillary Clinton, but I probably won't. At the moment, many progressives are up in arms about this. For those that feel that Donald Trump is the greatest threat to human life in modern history, a vote for anybody but Clinton is unconscionable. In contrast, many Sanders supporters continue to attribute Clinton's primary win to foul play and refuse to vote for her. Between superdelegates, closed primaries, and the DNC, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious. But neither of these things are weighing heavily on me. I am concerned with a very large threat to our democracy. It seems to me that corporate power and spending has the potential to overthrow our government. It won't look like a coup d'etat. It probably won't include blowing up any buildings or factories. But in reality, the coup has already begun - slowly overwhelming our electoral processes, subduing our regulatory foundations, seeping into our educational institutions, and extinguishing our ability to fend off avoidable crises.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has been an agent of corporate power. In recent years, she helped negotiate the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), which would be a tremendous gift to Big Business and a major setback for the working class and our environment. It was negotiated in secret between Pacific countries and hundreds of advisers from some of the world’s most powerful corporations, while the U.S. Congress and U.S. citizens were excluded. I'm sure the corporate war profiteers love her, since she rarely missed an opportunity to back more and bigger military interventions when she was Secretary of State. And now that their armaments have made it into the hands of the Islamic State, the resulting global instability will undoubtedly result in more military contracts. Hillary Clinton supported the deregulation of the telecommunication and financial industries, and now those folks are some of her largest campaign contributors. And they have been steadfast in their support. Need I go further? It is hard for me to champion someone who champions the very corporations, whose success threatens our democracy and the very livability of our planet.

On the other hand, I will certainly vote for someone other than Donald Trump.

April 27, 2016

Democracy Awakening Solidarity Rally - Sarasota

In April 2016, hundreds of thousands of people from a diverse array of movements came together in Washington DC to demand a democracy that works for all – a nation where our votes are not denied and money doesn’t buy access and power.

In Sarasota we had a much smaller assemblage, but we focused on the same legislative activities:

  • The Democracy For All Amendment (H.J.Res. 22, S.J.Res. 5), a constitutional amendment that would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections.

  • The Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659), legislation that would restore the protections against voting discrimination.

  • The Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 20 and S. 1538), a small donor empowerment measure that would encourage and amplify small contributions from everyday Americans.

  • Fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, including timely hearings and a vote by the full Senate.

April 24, 2016

Political Blaming and Bigotry

Demonizing groups of people seems to be part and parcel of our political process. In our two party dominated system, Republicans make Democrats out to be the villains, and Democrats make Republicans out to be the villains. This demonizing generally emerges in the form of one group blaming the other for the current, dreadful state of affairs. During most political races, this behavior devolves into mudslinging. Without being a student of political history, my guess is that it has always been so. I just read about the presidential campaign of 1828, during which Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams lashed out at each other mercilessly.

Presidents, as leading representatives of their party, are often the recipients of boatloads of blame. President Obama seems to have suffered a full-on attack of such blame-mongering, significantly more than any president in recent memory. Did you hear that the success of ISIS is totally President Obama's fault? How about the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. That was President Obama's fault as well. Never mind that he wasn't president then. And, apparently, Obamacare is destroying the U.S. health care system. If not, why has the House of Representatives tried to repeal it more than 60 times? And don't forget the ebola virus. Many critics attributed the 2014 ebola outbreak in West Africa to President Obama. A recent New York Times op-ed opined that the rising popularity of Donald Trump is part of President Obama's legacy. Thank you for a good guffaw. For some reason, politicians expect this kind of hogwash and seem to have such thick skin that all the blame slides off without causing damage. From where I sit, they look a bit super-human.

But the blaming and demonizing are all too human. As I watch the 2016 presidential election unfold, I am noticing that stereotyping, demonizing, and scapegoating are overlapping threads. These threads are woven into the very fabric of society. Until this election, I had thought that campaigns merely took advantage of the electorate's prejudices. For example, I remember in 2004,

March 23, 2016

Media Bias Against Sanders; Possible Voter Suppression Arizona

I wasn't paying too much attention to the presidential primaries in Arizona or the caucuses in Utah and Idaho, yesterday. But this morning, a petition crossed my Facebook newsfeed asking that the Obama administration look into possible voter fraud and voter suppression in Arizona. There didn't seem to be any actual news about it online.

As often happens when perusing the internet, something else caught my eye. From the headlines, I gathered that Hillary Clinton had won the day. A typical headline read, "Clinton, Trump add to delegate leads with Arizona victories." I proceeded to look into the actual numbers. How many delegates had each candidate won in Idaho, Utah, and Arizona? The numbers were a bit hard to come by. You'd think those numbers would be front page news. Instead, all I saw was a cumulative tally of delegates, which hid what actually happened yesterday.

As I delved deeper, I saw that Reuters claimed that Clinton routed Sanders in Arizona, but that Sanders won the races in Utah and Idaho. More accurate would be to reverse those verbs. Sanders routed Clinton in both Utah and Idaho with just under 80% of the vote, while Clinton won the Arizona race. The Atlantic seemed less biased, headlining that three Western States split their support.

However, my research revealed that Sanders carried the day -
  • Sanders won more delegates  (73 to 55, 2 missing?)
  • Sanders won more states (2 to 1)

October 14, 2014

Arlene Sweeting on Retaining Our Democracy

At the ripe age of 81, Rhana Bazzini has decided to walk over 400 miles to talk about getting money out of politics. She is walking across the Sunshine State from Sarasota to Tallahassee, and people are energized to support her. Arlene Sweeting organized a kickoff event for Rhana. Arlene speaks eloquently on the subject of losing our democracy.