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'Smart Solar' Initiative Soaks Up Contributions

Floridians for Solar Choice

In a battle involving two solar-energy ballot initiatives, a political committee backed by major utilities collected $335,000 in August — and had raised $798,000 in less than two months, according to a newly filed finance report.

The group, known as Consumers for Smart Solar, also had nearly $400,000 in the bank as September began.

Meanwhile, rival group Floridians for Solar Choice, which awaits a state Supreme Court decision on its proposed ballot language, appeared to be living almost paycheck-to-paycheck based on a financial report filed Thursday.

The Floridians for Solar Choice committee, backed in large part by the advocacy group Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, spent slightly more than $135,000 in August while raising just $591. The monthly total put the group's overall expenses at $468,908 as of Aug. 31, which was about $31,000 more than the group had collected.

But George Cavros, treasurer of Floridians for Solar Choice, said the committee records its expenses on the day checks are written rather than when they are mailed out.

"It's essentially a timing issue," Cavros said.

Floridians for Solar Choice wrote six checks that combined to top $70,000 on Aug. 31, according to the monthly finance report. Included in that bundle was $30,877 to PCI Consultants Inc. to gather petitions and $28,240 to the Tallahassee law firm of Nabors Giblin & Nickerson.

Cavros said the checks were mailed Sept. 2, the day a deposit of $100,000 was made from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's Action Fund. September numbers are not included in the finance report.

"I don't disagree it appears confusing, but I can assure you there is money in the account and the checks have been paid," Cavros said.

Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said supporters of the initiative expected August to be down financially and anticipate September to also be mostly expenses, as they await the court's ruling.

"We intentionally were designed to bottom out the resources before the Supreme Court hearing and expect it will dramatically take off once the Supreme Court rules in our favor," Smith said.

The Floridians for Solar Choice financial report was in contrast to the Consumers for Smart Solar report, also filed Thursday.

Much of the $335,000 that Consumers for Smart Solar raised in August came from major utilities, which also have fought the Floridians for Solar Choice initiative in the Supreme Court.

Tampa Electric Co., Florida Power & Light and Gulf Power each chipped in $50,000 last month to Consumers for Smart Solar, while Duke Energy and PowerSouth Energy Cooperative each contributed $30,000.

Consumers for Smart Solar, a group whose leadership includes two former state lawmakers, a Jacksonville tea-party founder and a former chairman of the Florida Public Service Commission, reported spending $211,695 during August, bringing its overall expenditure total to $405,873.

About $87,000 went in August to National Voter Outreach, a petition-gathering firm.

It could remain unclear for months whether either of the solar initiatives will make it to the November 2016 ballot.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Sept. 1 on the proposed ballot wording of the Floridians for Solar Choice initiative, a crucial step before proposed constitutional amendments can move forward. The court will decide whether the language meets requirements such as being limited to a single subject, being unambiguous and having a summary that meets a 75-word limit.

The Floridians for Solar Choice amendment, in part, would allow businesses to generate and sell up to two megawatts of power to customers on the same or neighboring properties. Two megawatts have been estimated as providing the daily needs of a typical Wal-Mart or residential communities between 225 and 714 homes.

If the court signs off on the wording, Floridians for Solar Choice would ultimately need to submit a total of 683,149 valid petition signatures to get on the 2016 ballot. As of Friday, the state Division of Elections website said the group had 135,109 valid signatures.

The signature number for Floridians for Solar Choice far exceeds the 4,873 valid petition signatures on the state website Friday for Consumers for Smart Solar.

However, Consumers for Smart Solar spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said this week the group is quickly catching up, with more than 100,000 signatures now submitted to county supervisors of election for review.

"This milestone also means that we will soon make our case for ballot placement before the Florida Supreme Court," Bascom said in a prepared statement.

Floridians for Solar Choice has been at work since last December, while Consumers for Smart Solar started raising money and collecting signature in July.

The ballot proposal by Consumers for Smart Solar would allow Floridians with solar equipment on their property to sell energy to power companies and "ensure that consumers who do not choose to install solar are not required to subsidize the costs of backup power and electric grid access to those who do."

The state must validate 68,314 of the committee's signatures to trigger a court review.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.