A powerful and wealthy special interest group is pushing hard against proposed legislation that would provide the funding authorization needed for Florida’s major utility companies to bury some of the state’s hundreds of thousands of miles of electric power lines. The process, known as “hardening,” would significantly reduce the likelihood of extended power outages following major storms and hurricanes.

State Representative Randy Fine and State Senator Joe Gruters filed companion bills in the Florida House and Senate that would help prepare the state for the next major hurricane to make landfall. If passed, the legislation would allow utilities to recover the cost associated with burying power lines to reduce the likelihood that a major storm could damage the electric grid and leave millions of Floridians without power for weeks.

But those upgrades would be expensive, and a mysterious activist group, called FIPUG, an acronym for the Florida Industrial Power User’s Group (FIPUG), is actively opposing the legislation. The group refuses to identify its members, but says the grid hardening proposal would cost them too much.

However, documents obtained by The Capitolist suggest that several of FIPUG ‘s likely members are among the largest corporations in the state. Unlike regular citizens, some of the group’s members actually have their own electrical generation systems they can use as backups when the primary power grid fails. According to the documents reviewed by The Capitolist, the group’s membership at one time likely included major corporations such as Mosaic, Publix, Wal-Mart, PepsiCo, Tenet Health and Tropicana, among others.

And while FIPUG and it’s murky membership oppose the legislation, critics say those companies are simply trying to avoid having to pay to help cover the costs of hardening since those companies are wealthy enough to afford backup generators and solar systems. Meanwhile, the people most seriously impacted by storm damage are those who can least afford to be without eletricity. That includes the poor and especially, elderly Floridians who aren’t able to cope with Florida’s summer heat without electricity to power fans or air conditioning.

“People die because there are people who are dependent,” Fine said in a recent committee hearing in support of his proposal. “This bill will most directly affect the most vulnerable among us, low-income and elderly.”

During Hurricanes Michael, Matthew, Irma and Hermine, many communities in Florida were left with widespread damage to the power grid. In some cases, the damage was so significant that citizens went without power for weeks. In the worst example, more than a dozen elderly nursing home patients perished when the indoor air temperature rose too high because of the lack of air condition and fresh air.

Those deaths prompted statewide outcry and a move by lawmakers to require backup generator systems for nursing homes and related facilities that care for the elderly. Most hospitals, including likely FIPUG member Tenet Health, have long ago invested in backup powersystems for emergencies. Critics say that’s exactly why Tenet Health and other corporations that already operate large-scale power generation and backup systems oppose any effort that might result in a robust upgrade to the power grid: because while everyday Floridians would benefit, FIPUG members don’t need the upgrade.

While FIPUG has strived to keep its membership a secret over the past two decades, there is substantial circumstantial evidence which paints a clear picture of the entities behind the group. Below are links and screenshots to each of the sources that, when taken together, appear to link these major corporations to FIPUG:

The Mosaic Company:

On Steven Davis’ LinkedIn profile, he identifies himself as the energy manager for Mosaic and the Chairman of the Florida Industrial Power Users Group:

Wal-Mart, Disney, and Publix:

This Florida Watchdog story cites Wal-Mart, Disney and Publix as members of FIPUG:

 

PepsiCo and Tropicana:

An entry in Indian River Politics references FIPUG members PepsiCo and Tropicana:

McWhirter Law Firm (linked to FIPUG, Tropicana and Mosaic in the same cases)

In the case of Tropicana, a court filing also shows that at one time, the firm was represented in court by the same firm (McWhirter) that also represented FIPUG in the same case. While it’s possible that the law firm firewalled the two clients and the association isn’t definitive proof of membership in FIPUG, it’s another bit of circumstantial evidence that suggests Tropicana is a likely member of the group.

The McWhirter connection shows up again ten years later in another case. This time, the connection is to Mosaic and FIPUG:

While none of these links by itself is definitive proof that these corporations are FIPUG members, the circumstantial evidence, taken together and combined with the group’s refusal to confirm or deny membership, suggests all of these corporations have direct links to the group and are likely behind the campaign to kill legislation to harden Florida’s power grid.