Florida court narrowly approves solar power amendment for ballot

By Gary Fineout, Associated Press

Floridians will get a chance this fall to vote on a solar power initiative that has been placed on the ballot with the financial backing of the state's largest power companies.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Floridians will get a chance this fall to vote on a solar power initiative that has been placed on the ballot with the financial backing of the state's largest power companies.

The Florida Supreme Court narrowly ruled Thursday that the proposal would not mislead voters and cleared it for the November 2016 election.

But the court split 4-3 with Justice Barbara Pariente writing a fiery dissent where she contended the amendment was "masquerading as a pro-solar initiative."

The proposal being pushed by a group that calls itself Consumers for Smart Solar would grant homeowners the right to install solar panels on their houses. But it also would allow local and state governments to continue regulating the use of solar power, including making sure that customers without solar are not required to "subsidize" those who do use the panels.

Four justices agreed that the amendment is worded clearly and doesn't violate the state's single-subject requirement for constitutional amendments.

Pariente, however, railed against the amendment because homeowners are already allowed under existing law to install solar panels.

"Let the pro-solar energy customers beware," Pariente wrote.

Dick Batchelor, co-chairman of the group sponsoring the amendment, said his organization would now try to urge voters to pass the measure. At least 60 percent of voters must vote yes for an amendment to pass.

"We look forward to making our case to the people of Florida: that we must advance solar energy, and do it the right way — a way that protects all consumers, whether they choose solar or not," Batchelor said.

Amendment backers had already gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Campaign records show that Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric have contributed nearly $4.5 million so far to the group.

Consumers for Smart Solar launched their campaign shortly after a rival solar energy amendment was proposed. That amendment would have kept government from regulating small solar power suppliers that generate up to two megawatts of power. It would have allowed firms that lease panels to homeowners to sell that power to the homeowner, which is now illegal in Florida.

Organizers of that effort, who called themselves Floridians for Solar Choice, were unable to gather the nearly 700,000 signatures to make the 2016 ballot. They said, however, they plan to campaign against the utility-backed amendment that will go before voters.

"It is shameful that the utilities would go so far and spend millions to manipulate and deceive their own customers," said Steve Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "We will absolutely continue to shine a light on their dirty tricks and hope that the voters of Florida will see their ballot initiative for what is it: a wolf in sheep's clothing, a sham designed to keep more money in the power companies' pockets."

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