Dozens of Florida business groups, trade associations, Florida cities and counties, three chapters of the Urban League in Florida, alongside industry and legal experts, have formed one a bipartisan coalition to oppose a misleading ballot initiative designed to gut Florida’s utility companies in favor of a deregulated energy market. The scheme, backed by a group called Citizens for Energy Choices, is supported by Infinite Energy CEO Rich Blaser. Blaser’s natural gas company stands to rake in big bucks if he succeeds, but first he must convince the Florida Supreme Court to approve ballot language that would be presented to voters in November 2020.
Ever-present at committee hearings to review proposed ballot language, Blaser’s group has already pumped millions into a petition drive to push his agenda in front of Florida voters. But asking people to sign a petition may have been the easy part.
Blaser is opposed by an army of legal experts and groups who filed opposition briefs with the Florida Supreme Court last week. The briefs urged the high court to reject the ballot language on the grounds that it violates the state consitution. According to the filings, the ballot language asks voters to consider two complex issues presented as a single question on deregulation. The net result is that voters are actually being asked not only open the energy market for new players, but also simultaneously gut Florida’s existing utilities. It’s that second component of the ballot measure that legal experts suggest may not be clear to voters in the ballot language, and constitutes a clear violation of Florida’s “single issue” ballot initiatve law. Voters may wish to have competition, but voters aren’t given the option to allow their existing utility to be one of those competitors.
Floridians enjoy some of the lowest energy costs in the nation, and many voters are happy with those low prices, high reliability and simplicity in the existing utility arrangement. Presenting a binary choice where approving competition simultaneously eliminates other potential competitors is a direct violation of the state constitution, the experts argued.
“We firmly believe that this ballot initiative is not ‘choice,’ but rather will damage consumers and harm our members and their communities,” said Patrick Franklin, President and CEO, Palm Beach County Urban League. “As a leading provider of family services to our community, this ballot initiative will strain our community members’ ability to move into the economic mainstream.”
But the legal technicalities are only part of the reason for the swelling opposition. If allowed to continue, Florida would become the only state to consider an extremely complex deregulation scheme through a direct voter petition. Industry experts say the issues are far too complex to boil down to a single ballot question. Most states that have tried deregulation schemes in the past have done so through a deliberative, legislative process, allowing state lawmakers to structure the scheme in a way that their citizens interests are protected.
The third driver of opposition is the dismal performance of utility deregulation across the nation. About two dozen different states have tried it in the past, and none have been successful in providing lower energy costs for consumers. Even in Texas, a state that pro-deregulation supporters point to as a good example, energy prices there skyrocketed during the fist few years and only recently have they started to become competitive again. Meanwhile, Texans are forced to contend with a myriad of unreliable energy suppliers and spend time researching which one is the best fit for their needs.
It appears from the existing evidence that only Rich Blaser and his company, Infinite Energy, are poised to see any benefit to deregulating our existing utility structure. But just like the shirtless Blaser in the liposuction photo, the emperor has no clothes. Now, a broad coalition of Florida businesses and trade groups are joining forces to make it abundantly clear that deregulation – particularly like this – is bad for Florida.