Solar energy bill blocked by Sunshine State Rep. Workman

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 2, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- A Florida Senate committee approved Tuesday a constitutional amendment for the November ballot to give tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels, but it is unlikely to come before voters: The chairman of a powerful House committee believes the solar industry isn't ready for it.

"I just don't see the need to continue to expand the incentives and underwriting of solar," said state Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee. "Solar is coming a long way and eventually it's going to be able to stand on its own two feet. But right now it doesn't."

Proponents of the bill say Workman's attitude is more proof of the clout of Florida's electric utilities, which view rooftop solar as the beginning of the end of their monopoly control over Florida's energy market.

John Porter, former mayor of Cape Canaveral and

the managing partner of the solar energy company CleanFootprint, said Workman and others in the Legislature oppose the amendment because voters would likely approve it.

"Nothing polls over 90 percent (among voters), but solar does," he said. "If the people of Florida are given a choice in this issue they are going to vote yes. ... They do want to abate taxes because they understand how valuable it is to their air, their water and to the future of Florida.

"Instead, everybody here is really interested in keeping the status quo in place, which is the stranglehold of these large utilities," he said. "It's really almost criminal and we need to make a change."

Two bills in play, Senate Bill 917 and House Bill 825, would place an amendment on the 2014 ballot that would rewrite the state constitution to allow an ad valorem tax exemption when businesses install renewable energy devices such as solar panels, as long as the company consumes the electricity itself.

In 2008, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to provide a tax exemption for renewable energy improvements made to residential properties: 61 percent approved it. The proposed amendment would extend that tax to commercial properties as long as the company doesn't intend to sell the electricity.

The Senate Community Affairs unanimously approved SB 917 on Tuesday, but its companion in the House has not gotten a hearing because of Workman's objections.

That prompted the solar industry to launch a tirade of protests and solar proponents that have jammed Workman's Twitter feed, filled his email box and crowded his office. They're also planning a rally next week.

"They're making me dig my heels in because they're blowing me up," said a defiant Workman.

He insists he is not being a shill for the utility giants.

"I would love to unmonopolize them," he said. "I'm not fighting this constitutional amendment because I'm in the pockets of them. I am tired of propping up the industry."

The state's three largest electric companies have spent more than nearly $3 million on campaign contributions this election cycle alone -- including $2.5 million from Florida Power & Light, which competes with the solar industry by offering its own solar plants. TECO Energy has spent another $754,000 and Duke Energy has given $390,000.

When voters approved the 2008 constitutional amendment, it took until last year to get legislators to pass a bill to implement it. Workman shepherded the legislation through and now appears resentful the solar industry doesn't appreciate his efforts.

"I'm now Mr. Anti-Solar, and it's ridiculous because the minute they are viable, my roof is going to be covered with them," he said, arguing taxpayers would have to "to underwrite the entire process to make it viable."

The proposed amendment has the support of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and a growing number of solar companies that want a foothold in Florida.

Several businessmen working on developing solar technology in Florida told the committee the state market has been so suppressed they have had to go to other states to do business.

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