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Forbes article linking Florida solar battle to Citizens United throws shade on the truth

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In the place known as the Sunshine State, there’s a lot of shade thrown around in the brewing political battle over solar energy.

One such shady spot comes from William Pentland, energy and environmental writer for Forbes, in a recent article called More Smoke, More Mirrors For Solar Politics In Sunshine State.

Pentland starts his biased rant with the “decidedly dark turn” against Floridians for Solar Choice (FSC), the political action committee busy collecting signatures for a proposed solar energy amendment on the 2016 ballot. FLSC’s primary backer is the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

In essence, the FSC measure will allow non-utilities to sell solar power directly to customers.

Pentland follows by throwing shade on Consumers for Smart Solar (CSS), a newly established committee (“appeared out of the blue,” he writes) – which offers a competing amendment.

The article also accuses CSS of being bankrolled by Florida Power & Light (FPL), the state’s largest utility and a subsidy of NextEra Energy.

FPL is among those challenging the Solar Choice proposal, which they believe will result in a number of unintended consequences, ultimately hurting Florida consumers with subsidies, higher taxes and fees.

“Where did CSS come from,” Pentland incredulously demands. “Who paid to set it up?”

Next he attempts to link FPL and other committees set up to address energy issues, particularly one in the city of South Daytona over the establishment of a municipal electrical system – a matter unrelated to solar energy.

Pentland then engages in a bit of verbal gymnastics over the terms “contributions” versus “donations” in Florida election law, while simultaneously claiming he is “not an expert in campaign finance law.”

The kicker, though, is one which Pentland hoped to be something a bombshell, but is actually more of a dud.

“I may be wrong,” he writes, “but I don’t think CSS would be legal but for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in ‘Citizens United.’”

Pentland was referring to the landmark case opening the door for corporations and labor unions to raise and spend unlimited money, and gain tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(4).

The piece did get one thing right – Pentland is completely wrong about Citizens United.

So says campaign finance expert Nancy Watkins.

Watkins, a CPA at Robert Watkins & Company in Tampa, is one of Florida’s most experienced and respected specialists in campaign finance and federal tax law for tax-exempt organizations.

Citizens United v. FEC concerned federal law and the prohibition against corporations and unions making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communication to influence the results of an individual’s election to federal office,” Watkins told Florida Politics in an email.

Florida law allows corporate spending in state elections, she said, as well as direct contributions, even before Citizens United. In that regard, the SCOTUS ruling changed nothing in Florida.

“But that is moot anyway,” Watkins continued.

Watkins stated that CSS was not created to influence the results of an election to either federal or state office. The organization concerns public policy, something entirely unrelated to Citizens United.

“There has never been a ban on corporate spending to influence public policy,” she said. Pentland was “probably confused in thinking because the committee must register and report as a political committee under Florida Campaign Finance Law, and that it is, therefore, also a political organization and exempt from taxation under IRC 527.”

But qualifying as one or the other does not automatically classify as the other, Watkins notes.

Under Florida campaign finance law, groups engaging in certain activities related to a ballot initiative (such as a constitutional amendment) must register and report as a political committee – which does not change it from being a public policy organization exempt from taxation, either as a 501(c)(4) or other applicable section of the Internal Revenue Code.

The takeaway? Facts are difficult to grasp at times, and in Pentland’s case, being blinded by solar energy – and the populism against Citizen’s United – isn’t helping with the truth.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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