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SolarCity’s questionable business practices a warning for Florida solar debate?

A familiar narrative in the debate over solar energy in Florida follows a “David and Goliath” theme.

Cast as Goliath are the state’s largest utilities; playing David are “little guy” rooftop solar companies trying to make it in the utility’s shadow.

However, a recent New York Times article rejects that account, exposing some of the “diminutive” players in Florida’s solar industry for what they really are – billion-dollar, for-profit corporations which engage in highly questionable business practices to lure consumers.

In one case, these practices echo big bank mortgages from a decade ago, methods which led to the financial crisis and Great Recession of 2008.

SolarCity, the nation’s leading installer of rooftop solar panels – and a favorite in the renewable energy sector – promotes itself to investors with a single idea; a 20-year lease for those signing up for its solar panels.

Reporters Danielle Ivory and Diane Cardwell found dozens of homeowners who, over the last three years, entered such long-term solar panel agreements shortly before (and sometimes after) defaulting on mortgages. More than a dozen homeowners were already in default, or with other liens on the property, by the time SolarCity submitted paperwork to the government.

The situation got to the point where Mohammed Ahmed Gangat, an attorney for SolarCity had to file documents and a New York State court asking for an extension after the company was, as the Times reports, “inundated with hundreds of lawsuits in New York, and thousands across the country, all of which have named SolarCity as a defendant in a residential foreclosure action.”

Later, a statement from SolarCity representatives clarified Gangat’s statement, saying that there were only 139 cases out of “more than 305,000 installed customers.”

Either way, the figures pose a problem: If the attorney (who SolarCity pointed out was not an employee) cited incorrect figures in his filing, he would be subject to ethical disciplinary action. On the other hand, if the number of cases is indeed “in the thousands,” Ivory and Cardwell suggest SolarCity – now owned by automaker Tesla – could face a “threat to its financial performance that it has not disclosed to the government and investors.”

To consumers, the basic premise of SolarCity is simple, install solar panels and save on electric bills.

The company offers to pick up installation costs, an average of $25,000 to $30,000, and charge customers a flat rate for electricity produced by the panels, usually at rates 10 to 15 percent below that of utilities.

Customer gets cheaper power, SolarCity gets regular monthly payments.

But in the past few years, SolarCity lowered its requirements for entry into the program – using a 650 FICO score cutoff, considered by many to be only “fair” credit. But that credit score is assessed months before solar panels are installed, and can fluctuate considerably based upon financial situations.

As Rod Griffin, director of public education at credit reporting agency Experian, told the Times: “For a consumer with a sub-700 score, it’s likely that there are already some indicators of risk there, but not a severe one to that particular lender, I guess, at that point.”

Relying on a single credit score – one that could change for the worse at almost any time – calls into question SolarCity’s business practices, especially considering the expensive hardware that will be sitting on foreclosed homes, which could number in the hundreds (or even thousands).

Adding to the confusion are courts that will have a difficult time determining the true ownership of installed solar panels.

Of course, SolarCity is not the only solar company facing these problems, but it is one of the largest.

“SolarCity needs to contest every foreclosure to have any realistic chance of getting either paid for or the return of their solar panels,” Connecticut attorney Christopher McCormick said. After a decade representing banks, McCormick now works with homeowners facing foreclosure.

“Those panels are pretty valuable,” he told the Times. “It makes sense that the company would not want to lose them.”

A massive corporation, mired in potentially thousands of foreclosure suits, is certainly not the image groups like the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy want to promote in its effort to expand solar power throughout Florida.

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David Jolly says the state of GOP next year will determine his electoral future

Though he’s now out of public office, David Jolly has never been more ubiquitous in appearing on your television.

The former Pinellas County Representative was scheduled to make another appearance on MSNBC on Wednesday night, this time on “All In with Chris Hayes” talking about the buzzsaw that his former GOP brethren are confronting when hosting town hall meetings across the country this week.

Jolly is a rare Republican speaking out critical against many of the moves of the Trump administration, bumping up his status on many cable news producers rolodexes. However, that opposition could come at a price.

Because of his comments regarding the pressures of fundraising that he says the GOP establishment imposed upon him and other freshmen legislators, the National Republican Congressional Committee opted not to aid him in his uphill battle to retain his seat against Democrat Charlie Crist last year. If he were to challenge him again next year, he surely will need those funds to compete in a seat that Democrats will fight hard to maintain. Yet Jolly says he can’t think that calculatingly.

“We would have won if the NRCC had come in,” Jolly told this reporter on WMNF’s MidPoint program Thursday. “If there had been a half million or a million dollars, the reality is of modern electoral science is we would have won, we would have closed that three precent gap.”

Jolly lost by 3.8 percentage points to Crist, a closer race than many polls had predicted, based on the redistricting of the CD 13 seat that added the much more liberal parts of downtown and South St. Petersburg to the district. However, Jolly says he won’t fall in line and stay silent when he sees some of the actions that the new Republican president is doing in office.

“I’m not going to sell my soul simply for electoral office,” he said. “I’m not interested in being part of a congress that’s broken.”

And Jolly includes some Democrats of being timid in speaking out against Trump when the occasion calls for it.

“The reality is that a lot of Democrats are afraid to speak out against Donald Trump as well. And Charlie’s one of those.”

Jolly also took note that while there’s been criticism about some Republicans (such as Marco Rubio) avoiding hosting town hall meetings this week, so has Crist.

“The Congressman is meeting with constituents and hearing their concerns at community events across the district,” responds Crist spokesperson Erin Moffet. “We are looking at options for future public events to make sure the people’s voices continue to be heard, and I’ll be sure to let you know when they are scheduled.”

Regarding a potential congressional rematch against Crist next year, Jolly says he won’t make that decision until sometime early next year.

“If this is the state of the Republican Party next year, what we’re seeing today, then there’s probably not a place for me on the ballot, but I just keep doing what I believe is right,” he says.”There will be a point at which that aligns with where the party is and the community is, and then perhaps there might be an opportunity to seek election again. It simply is not my singular focus, though.”

 

 

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Rick Scott to court: Throw out Richard Corcoran’s Lottery lawsuit

Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration is asking a judge to throw out a lawsuit filed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

A Leon County circuit judge held a brief hearing Thursday over Corcoran’s lawsuit that maintains the Florida Lottery broke the law when it approved a more than $700-million contract with IGT Global Solutions to help run lottery games.

Corcoran’s lawsuit contends the contract is illegal because it exceeds the department’s authorized budget.

Barry Richard, an attorney hired to represent the state’s lottery secretary, argued the agency followed the law because the contract states it is contingent on state funding.

Richard told reporters after the hearing that if the Legislature “doesn’t like it, they don’t have to fund it.”

The case could get decided quickly. Judge Karen Gievers scheduled a March 6 trial.

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VIDEO: Lawmakers, supporters speak out on school recess

Sen. Anitere Flores, Rep. Rene “Coach P” Plasencia, and a throng of “recess moms” spoke with reporters Thursday in support of legislation that would mandate school recess.

The Senate Education Committee this week voted unanimously to approve this year’s bill (SB 78). Its House companion (HB 67) has not yet heard a hearing.

It requires school districts to provide at least 20 minutes of recess each day to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

This may well be the year the bill passes the Legislature. A version was OK’d by the House last year but died in the Senate because then-Sen. John Legg refused to hear the measure in the Pre-K-12 Education Committee he chaired.

That was despite the fact former Senate President Andy Gardiner supported the bill.

“He did not believe in the policy and he did not hear the bill,” Gardiner said in an INFLUENCE magazine interview last year. “He felt, and it’s legitimate, that that’s a local issue and we should allow local school districts to make that decision.

“Some said I should have forced him to hear that (bill),” Gardiner said. “I talked to him about but ultimately it was his decision. He’s the chair. That was just my style.”

A Periscope video of Thursday’s news conference in the Capitol’s 4th floor rotunda is below.

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If Donald Trump won’t man up, meet with teen, maybe Betsy DeVos will

President Donald Trump ought to give Jackie Evancho the meeting she asked for. He owes her bigly.

The sixteen-year-old musical prodigy performed the national anthem at Trump’s inauguration, adding a huge dose of class to the festivities and sparing a grateful nation from another round of DJ Ravidrums, Toby Keith and Three Doors Down.

Evancho’s political skills are right up there with her astonishing vocal chops. In the wake of Trump’s mean-spirited withdrawal of federal protections for transgender students, she took to Twitter, and to television, to politely ask Trump to meet with her, and with her 18-year-old transgender sister, to learn about what life is like for children whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had at birth.

That’s a lot for a sex-obsessed 70-year-old man to wrap his head around. But we’d like to think that Trump would have done it if any of his five children had felt utterly out of place in the pink or blue blankets in which they were first swaddled.

The Evancho family, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the mother of a transgender son and a congresswoman who has refused to pander to uninformed and uncurious culture warrior constituents, and every other family with a transgender son or daughter has had to choose between educating themselves and supporting their loved one, or throwing the child to the wolves.

The alternative to unconditional love is to give license to self-appointed gender police, and to the Mean Girls, Bully Boys, and Bathroom Bill Brigades who make life so miserable for transgender kids that one out of three of them will attempt suicide.

Too many of them succeed, which perhaps explains why Education Secretary Betsy DeVos tried to talk Trump out of telling transgender kids that they’ll be happier — and definitely safer — with homeschooling. If Trump doesn’t have the guts to meet with the Evancho sisters, let’s hope that DeVos will.

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House gambling bill gets thumbs up on first look

With its chair saying he wants to “freeze” gambling in the state, a House gambling panel on Thursday cleared that chamber’s overhaul bill, including a renewed blackjack agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d the measure (PCB TGC 17-01) on a 10-5 party-line vote.

But the bill, which isn’t yet assigned to another committee, differs greatly from the Senate’s gambling legislation. Its proposal (SB 8) now is cleared for consideration by the full chamber after a 14-2 vote in the Appropriations Committee, also Thursday.

The House is looking to contract gambling overall; the Senate would expand some gambling opportunities though bill sponsor Bill Galvano has said it contracts gambling overall.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the House panel’s chair, was hopeful about reaching compromise, though he made clear the Senate would have to vastly change its position.

“I think their expansion and where they’re going with it would be a non-starter here,” the St. Cloud Republican told reporters after the meeting. 

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games,” and the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines. No Casinos, the anti-gambling expansion group, supports the House bill.

Moreover, the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money – $3 billion over seven years – would go to education, split three ways among “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools,” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But state Rep. Jared Moskowitz criticized the bill for doing exactly what the House’s GOP majority says it hates: Picking winners and losers.

“The winners are the Seminoles, and the losers are everybody else,” he said. The Coral Springs Democrat had tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to delete a legal requirement that racetracks run live races to also offer other gambling, like poker.

This is not free market—this is a corporate mandate,” he said of the legislation. Moskowitz also pointed out the many gambling policy conflicts between the chambers.

“What are we doing here? I have no idea, actually,” Moskowitz said. “…We’re debating something we know is already dead.”

State Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the panel’s Democratic Ranking Member, suggested that the bill’s funding mechanism would disproportionately benefit privately-run charter schools.  

“It’s not corporate welfare” for charter schools, La Rosa told reporters.

Where the money goes exactly isn’t “solid yet,” he added, but “who’s actually benefiting is the student (who doesn’t have to go) to a failing school.”

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Should Jameis Winston be hammered for clumsy statement?

Now that he has fumbled, are we to hammer Jamies Winston?

Now that he has said the wrong thing, does it matter if he was doing the right one?

Winston, the quarterback with the troubled past for the Tampa Bay Bucs, had good intentions. Really he did. On an off-day, he chose to speak to the children at Melrose Elementary School. He said later that he noticed one small boy who wasn’t paying attention, and he tried to get him involved.

At that point, Winston said something inappropriate. And, from the reports, there are those who will not forgive him.

“All my young boys, stand up. The ladies, sit down,” Winston said, as quoted by the Tampa Bay Times and others. “But all my boys, stand up. We strong, right? We strong! We strong, right? All my boys, tell me one time: I can do anything I put my mind to. Now a lot of boys aren’t supposed to be soft-spoken. You know what I’m saying? One day y’all are going to have a very deep voice like this (in deep voice). One day, you’ll have a very, very deep voice.

“But the ladies, they’re supposed to be silent, polite, gentle. My men, my men (are) supposed to be strong. I want y’all to tell me what the third rule of life is: I can do anything I put my mind to. Scream it!”

It should go without saying that no one should tell girls to be silent, or to suggest that they are not strong. For that clumsy wording, Winston was wrong.

On the other hand, he was at Melrose to deliver a positive message. Should he be roasted for it?

Yes, Winston had his problems while at FSU, being accused of domestic violence, singing a rap song that was crude. But this was merely saying something the wrong way, wasn’t it? No one should defend what Winston said. Still, you get the feeling that Winston was trying to fire up the boys rather than put down the girls. Don’t you?

ESPN — which defended Winston in a video — did bring up his sexual assault reports in its report.

“I was making an effort to interact with a young male in the audience who didn’t seem to be paying attention, and I didn’t want to single him out so I asked all the boys to stand up,” Winston said. “During my talk, I used a poor word choice that may have overshadowed that positive message for some.”

On the other hand, Winston just turned 23. He will get smoother in his messages. He will be all-inclusive.

And, yes, he’ll learn that girls are strong, too.

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St. Pete Yacht Club ready to resume historic Havana Regatta

An historic race resumes Tuesday after a 58-year hiatus.

Once again, boats are daydreaming about Havana. For most of the existence of the 107-year-old St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the Regatta was an annual event. It was suspended after the 1959 competition, however, due to the political strife in Cuba.

The race has drawn a tremendous response. All 80 available entries were filled within the first week of its announcement on August 1, 2016. Over 550 sailors will descend upon St. Petersburg this weekend to enjoy preliminary events that include a race history dinner on Sunday, safety seminars and a bon voyage party on Monday evening for the race contestants.

The race launches in Tampa Bay near downtown St. Petersburg off the downtown St. Pete waterfront at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28. The waterfront will be quite a sight, as the dozens of sailboats make preparations in the early morning, then gather in the basin for the official start. They will head toward the Skyway Bridge and out into the open seas.

Boats will sail one to two days and arrive in Havana on Thursday.

Once there, the sailors will enjoy the country’s hospitality at the Hemingway Marina through Sunday, March 5. The activities include a separate, 16 mile regatta with the locals that runs from Hemingway Marina to the Morro Castle.

“All of us at this Yacht Club are looking forward to seeing the historic race re-launch next week, and solidifying the exchange of fellowship between the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, Pinellas County and the City of St. Petersburg, along with the Cuban government and the yachting world,” said the St. Petersburg Yacht Club’s former Commodore, Richard Winning, whose father was Commodore when the race last sailed in 1959.

The St. Petersburg-Habana race was first conceived in the late 1920s by George S. “Gidge” Gandy as a promotional event sorely needed with St. Petersburg mired in a housing bust brought on by the Great Depression. Eleven boats competed in the inaugural regatta, which started on March 30, 1930 at the St. Petersburg Municipal Pier. The winner finished in 41 hours, 42 minutes.

The race, which became one of St. Petersburg’s signature events, was suspended in 1942 due to WWII, and resumed in 1946. Military and political unrest in Cuba threatened the event in the latter 1950s, and it was last run in 1959, as gun-wielding revolutionaries patrolled the streets of Havana. Recent breakthroughs in U.S.-Cuba relations prompted club officials to re-institute one of its most historically significant events.

The Mission of St. Petersburg Yacht Club is to encourage and support yachting, and provide a comfortable social environment for our members and guests, while preserving and enhancing the Club’s traditions and prestige.  The St. Petersburg Yacht Club is located at 11 Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg.

 

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As Donald Trump revokes transgender student protection, Florida LGBTQ community wonders what’s next?

Late Wednesday night and into early Thursday morning, the most popular night spots in St. Petersburg were slow, but one topic was making the rounds: Donald Trump’s policy reversal decision on transgender students and what it means in a broader context.

Michael Jones, a well-known entertainer and drag whose stage name is “Meagan Towers,” was in street clothes, sipping on a drink at Pepperz Cabaret in Gulfport, the heart of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the greater St. Petersburg area.

“I think what they’re doing is wrong,” Jones, who works mostly in Naples, told FloridaPolitics.com. “I know too, too many trans people that this could affect if (Trump) takes this further.”

Hours earlier – in a letter to issued in Washington, D.C., on letterhead by the departments of Justice and Education, and signed by officials with the civil rights divisions of each – Trump’s legal experts asserted that the rights of transgender students to use separate “sex-segregated” were given without proper vetting.

Sandra Battle, of the U.S. Department of Education, and T.E. Wheeler II, of the U.S. Department of Justice, justified the government’s position because no formal public debate had ever been carried out and, in addition, no compatibility review with Title IX had been done either.

“The interpretation has given rise to significant litigation regarding school restrooms and locker rooms,” said the joint statement issued Wednesday.

“The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded that the term ‘sex’ in the regulations is ambiguous and deferred to what the court characterized as the ‘novel’ interpretation advanced in the guidance.”

The letter cites a Texas injunction against the 2015 and 2016 Obama-era administration letters, released by the departments of Education and Justice, respectively, authorizing broader rights for the nation’s growing transgender students.

“In addition, the departments believe that, in this context, there must be due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy,” Wednesday’s joint revision read.

That mattered little to Jones back in St. Petersburg. He and a couple of friends worried whether Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress were poised to do much more, like rescind the right for those in the LGBTQ communities to legally marry.

Jones said Trump used to support “the LGBTQ team,” but since becoming president, the shifting winds of politics had taken hold.

“Apparently, he’s making it known to all minorities and us that he doesn’t give a damn,” he said, irked.

Jones and several other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in St. Petersburg that FloridaPolitics.com spoke with well into early Thursday morning – most of whom did not wish to go on the record for this story in what they described as a growing climate of fear in the culture wars – said they were definitely scared.

They spoke sympathetically of teens across the country who may be struggling with their identity, trying to fit in socially while growing up transgender. The men said Trump’s new policy might lead to an uptick in teen suicides among transgender youth.

Statistics are it are fuzzy, but according to one study by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, published in Science Daily August 2016, 30 percent of transgender youth reported having attempted suicide at least once, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury, like cutting.

Separately, they asked, what about Florida legislators? With a Republican governor close to Trump and a GOP-controlled Statehouse with a new legislative session approaching, could the days of Florida being a haven for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community be at risk?

Maybe, several lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people admitted. They were aware of a current piece of legislation meant to do just that – roll back the gains made through years of protests and condemnation.

But HB 17 is a pre-filed measure for the 2017 session that the Washington-based nonprofit Freedom for all Americans – which works to secure non-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans –  describes as a “bill (targeting) local non-discrimination protections for all Floridians, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, by not only banning municipal governments from passing non-discrimination ordinances, but by overturning any protections currently in place on Jan. 1, 2020.”

HB 17 was introduced by Rep. Randy Fine. Detractors of the proposal say it is being fast tracked.

“I feel like they’re trying to take all the rights we have now away,” Jones, the entertainer, said. “Like they may abolish gay marriage and everything – just gone.”

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Charlie Crist joins blasts Trump administration’s rollback of protection for transgender students

Charlie Crist is blasting the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw Obama-era protections for transgender students in public schools that let them use bathrooms and facilities corresponding with their gender identity.

“This action sends a frightening message that the administration does not care about the safety of transgender children in our nation’s schools,” Crist said Thursday. “While repealing this guidance does not change the fact that Title IX protects transgender students, it subjects our public schools to more lawsuits and puts trans youth at risk. I stand with America’s trans students who, like all children, deserve a safe place to learn.”

Two GOP members of Florida’s congressional delegation have also criticized the decision.

“This is a disappointing choice for the Administration to make,” Congressional District 26 Representative Carlos Curbelo said in a statement. “We should be working toward ensuring all American children feel safe and accepted in their schools, regardless of where they live, their race, creed, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision by the Trump administration, “lamentable.”

Along with Rep. Jared Polis (D – CO), Ros-Lehtinen introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) in 2015 that would prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. She’s also supportive of the Safe Schools Improvement Act which would require schools to create a code of conduct against discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, and other important factors.

Last May, the departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance directing schools to let transgender students use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. The “Dear Colleague” letter, addressed to school districts and colleges that receive federal funding, was based on the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX, the federal law that bans sex discrimination in schools, to include gender identity.

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