Florida's duel between rival solar power initiatives heated up Monday with fresh attacks against big utilities and a new poll that confirms Floridians want more solar power freedom. Voters also want plain-English ballot language, a political consultant said.
A poll of 803 registered voters by North Star Opinion Research and Harstad Strategic Research indicated voters who were turned off by Solar Choice’s ballot language changed their minds when the initiative was explained in “plainer English,” according to North Star’s Dan Judy, who helped run the poll July 16-22.
“What we found,” Judy said, “was that a significant number of people who said they were voting against it gave a response to indicate that they actually supported it.”
Translation: 68 percent of Florida voters support Solar Choice after hearing pros and cons and a less technical reading of the proposed amendment. Twenty-two percent were against and 10 percent were undecided. Judy said 82 percent surveyed liked the general concept expressed in Solar Choice's initiative, including free market principles.
“Once people understand what the technical language is doing, then there’s overwhelming support,” said Stephen Smith, head of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a founding member of Solar Choice.
Solar Choice received low marks in the poll when the ballot language was read verbatim: 47 percent in favor, 30 percent against, and 23 percent unsure. Judy said that's normal.
"The language of the amendment is very technical. That's by design," said Judy, whose clients include U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. "It's very difficult to get these initiatives approved by the Supreme Court so they have to be technical."
Solar Choice's ballot is so techy it flunked a Mason-Dixon poll earlier in July, producing only 30 percent support. A competing amendment proposal by Consumers for Smart Solar was favored by 66 percent.
“I don’t think [Smart Solar] have any intention of putting what they’ve launched on the ballot,” Smith said. “They are nothing more than a utility-backed [measure] run by a bunch of paid political hacks to try to attack and confuse folks in Florida."
Analysts for Mason-Dixon said Solar Choice's initiative "is much more confusing to the average voter than the language offered in the counter-amendment." Amendment proposals require 60 percent approval in a statewide vote.
“We have made this language very precise to get through the Florida Supreme Court,” Smith said. “We’ve made it self-executing so that the legislature cannot hijack the will of the voters once we win. And we’ve made it very strongly insulated so that it can withstand attacks from utilities. That’s why [utility companies] hate what we’re doing.”
Big utilities favor Consumers for Smart Solar, claiming Solar Choice’s initiative will restrict consumer rights. In July, Florida Power & Light acknowledged providing “technical and policy assistance” to Smart Solar and recently made a $30,000 contribution to the campaign.
In an email, Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for Smart Solar, said, “We have collected and submitted tens of thousands of petitions [to the Division of Elections] and we will continue to do so. [Solar Choice's] continued, intentional deception will not distract us.”
Solar Choice has 109,397 verified petitions and needs 683,149 by Feb. 1 to get on the 2016 ballot.
“It’s a big task but we have individuals all over the state collecting and we’re going to be ramping up after the Supreme Court,” Solar Choice chairman Tory Perfetti said. “You can see where we are and it’s a good place to be.”
Smith and Smart Solar co-chairman Dick Batchelor are scheduled to debate Thursday in St. Petersburg at a policy conference for the Florida Association of Counties.
“Dick Batchelor is just a hired gun,” Smith said. “I think we should actually be debating [CEO] Eric Silagy at FPL. We ought to be debating the people who are really behind [Smart Solar].”
The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on Solar Choice starting Sept. 1.
“This is a critical time for us,” Smith said. “[Utility companies] know that by sowing confusion and doubt in people’s minds about the ballot effort that we’re running that it will have issues with our ability to raise money and get the signatures gathered.”
Solar Choice also tweaked Smart Solar by launching a new website, ConsumersforSmartSolar.org. The website includes links to Solar Choice and to a database of stories opposing Smart Solar.
"The website is irrelevant," Bascom said.
Hasta la vista