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Supreme Court approves first of proposed solar amendments

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A proposed constitutional amendment that would allow Floridians to generate and sell their own solar power passes legal muster, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court’s purview was limited to whether the language embraces one subject and uses “clear and unambiguous language” in the ballot summary. The majority said yes on both counts.

Justice Ricky Polston, however, disagreed on the ballot summary portion, saying it was “confusing.”

The decision clears the way for the amendment to go before voters in 2016, assuming it gets the required 683,149 signatures by next February.

It had 183,677 as of Thursday, according to the Division of Elections. Amendments need the approval of 60 percent of voters to be added to the state constitution.

“We are thrilled with the high court’s ruling so that voters may have the opportunity to vote on removing a barrier that currently blocks Florida’s families and businesses from greater energy choices through the power of the free market,” said Tory Perfetti, chairman of Floridians for Solar Choice, the group behind the initiative.

“People power is what will get us on the ballot, and we continue to gather thousands of signatures each week from Floridians eager for solar choice,” he said in a statement.

The language also aims at lifting “barriers to supplying local solar electricity,” which opponents – including Attorney General Pam Bondi – have taken as allowing out-of-state concerns to operate without regulation.

“Voters don’t want unregulated utilities, which is exactly what this would allow,” said Allen Winsor, the state’s solicitor general, at the oral argument in September.

A member of the utility-backed coalition sponsoring a competing solar amendment said the court’s move was “unfortunate.”

“We caution Florida voters about this disingenuous solar ballot measure that favors big out-of-state solar companies instead of Florida consumers,” said Dick Batchelor, co-chair of Consumers for Smart Solar.

“We simply cannot allow this seriously flawed amendment to pass,” he added. “This special interest amendment puts Florida consumers, and especially our seniors, at great risk of fraud and abuse.”

Floridians for Solar Choice’s amendment would allow homeowners and businesses to install solar arrays on their roofs or other property to generate their own power, and sell to others what they don’t use, so long as the buyer is on a “directly adjacent” site.

Consumers for Smart Solar has called into question a new monthly fee the competing amendment would create. In oral argument, Floridians for Solar Choice attorney Bob Nabors had told the justices of a “standby charge” that would be “uniformly applied.”

Barry Richard, the attorney representing several utilities doing business in Florida, also said the amendment would create an unfair playing field, essentially allowing pop-up mini-utilities to compete without the same rules governing his clients.

 

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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