The Florida Supreme Court is weighing approval of ballot language for a proposed amendment that would deregulate and open up competition for investor-owned utility companies. Justices heard oral arguments Wednesday.
Under the amendment, current investor-owned utilities would only oversee management of the infrastructure to distribute power. They would no longer be over generation and sale of power. Customers would then be able to choose from any generating companies in a new, competitive market.
Barry Richard is counsel for Florida Power and Light and Gulf Power. He says the amendment would radically change the industry.
“First, it opens the electricity market for generation and sale of energy, to open competition for the first time in more than half a decade – a massive change,” Richard said. “And second, it ousts from the market all current private providers, known in the industry as investor-owned utilities, or IOUs.”
Richard and other opponents of the proposal say its language is deceptive. Some have also alleged similar measures were a disaster for states like Texas, where rates have been jacked up under the competitive system.
Counsel for the group pushing the amendment, Florida Energy Choice, faced tough questions from justices – like this one, from Justice Barbara Lagoa:
“You just said that we’re creating something entirely new, which I thought was very revealing. Because the ballot summary doesn’t tell me, if I’m the reasonable voter, that this is going to be a completely new – an entirely new scheme.”
Attorney Ken Sukhia represents Florida Energy Choice. Justices also pressed Sukhia about whether voters would know they couldn’t keep their current provider. He told the Court voters would indeed understand the industry would be overhauled.
“If I’m an average voter, and I am a customer of the investor owned utilities, I am going to understand that this creates something completely new, in the sense that now I have a choice,” Sukhia said. “In fact, the ballot title even says “allows energy choice.” And I’ve had no choice up to this point.”
The amendment would require the state legislature to create a legal framework for a new competitive market by 2025.
Floridians for Affordable Reliable Energy, or FARE, is a group created to oppose the measure. On its board are former state legislator Joe Gibbons and former Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer.
It commissioned a poll of more than 1,300 voters on the ballot language, and are reporting a roughly 40 percent approval. Scott Arseneaux, former executive director of to Florida Democratic Party, also sits on the FARE board.
“We went ahead and gave voters a little more information – essentially, that they would be forced to change their energy provider – so whoever gives you electricity today, they will not be able to give you electricity tomorrow,” Arseneaux told reporters during a press conference Tuesday. “75 percent of Floridians will have to change their energy provider. Voters don’t like that.”
Arseneaux says when voters were told they’d have to change providers and shown price increases from other deregulated states, support fell to 21 percent.