The Florida Supreme Court, in a 4-3 ruling Thursday, found that the wording of a controversial ballot initiative backed by major utilities meets the legal standards to go before voters in November
The court did not rule on the merits of the proposed amendment, which is sponsored by a group called "Consumers for Smart Solar" and has already been slotted as amendment number 1 on the November ballot. Instead, the court found that the measure meets wording requirements, such as being limited to a single subject and being unambiguous.
"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," Consumers for Smart Solar Co-Chairman Dick Batchelor, a former state legislator, said in a release after the ruling.
But critics expressed disappointment, as they contend the measure is simply an effort by the utilities to maintain control over solar energy and limit private use.
"This amendment hoodwinks voters by giving the impression that it will encourage the use of rooftop solar when, in fact, it would do the opposite,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who argued against the amendment March 7 at the court.
The Consumers for Smart Solar amendment was introduced in July after a separate amendment, backed by a group known as "Floridians for Solar Choice," was proposed to allow businesses to generate and sell up to two megawatts of power to customers on the same or neighboring properties. The Floridians for Solar Choice proposal ultimately failed to receive enough petition signatures to get on the 2016 ballot.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga was joined by justices R. Fred Lewis, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston in supporting the Consumers for Smart Solar ballot language Thursday.
"When read within the full context of the ballot title and summary, none of the terms contained within the ballot title and summary are misleading and none of the terms constitute political or emotional rhetoric," the majority opinion said.
The Consumers for Smart Solar measure would generally maintain the status quo in allowing Floridians with solar equipment on their property to sell energy to power companies.
The ballot summary states: "This amendment establishes a right under Florida's constitution for consumers to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use. State and local governments shall retain their abilities to protect consumer rights and public health, safety and welfare, and to 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."
Justice Barbara Pariente wrote a sharp dissent Thursday that echoed views of opponents of the initiative.
"Let the pro-solar energy consumers beware," Pariente wrote in the dissent backed by justices Peggy Quince and James E.C. Perry. "Masquerading as a pro-solar energy initiative, this proposed constitutional amendment, supported by some of Florida's major investor-owned electric utility companies, actually seeks to constitutionalize the status quo."
Pariente added that "the ballot title is affirmatively misleading by its focus on 'Solar Energy Choice,' when no real choice exists for those who favor expansion of solar energy."
In the majority ruling, the four justices said they disagreed with opponents of the amendment.
"Nothing within the Florida Constitution currently provides electricity consumers with the specific right 'to own or lease solar equipment installed on their property to generate electricity for their own use,' " the majority ruled. "Although the Florida Constitution provides a general right to 'acquire, possess and protect property,' this court has recognized that it does not secure the right to own any specific good or asset."
Backers of the rival Floridians for Solar Choice proposal, who are now aiming for the 2018 ballot, have argued that the Consumers for Smart Solar proposal was intended to confuse voters.
Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a key supporter of the Floridians for Solar Choice coalition, said opponents will vigorously campaign against the utility-backed amendment.
"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," Smith said in a prepared statement.
With deep financial support from Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power, the Consumers for Smart Solar proposal had raised $7.22 million as of Feb. 29, compared to the $1.55 million raised by Floridians for Solar Choice.
Floridians will get a chance this fall to put solar-energy regulations into the state Constitution.