How a utility’s silent spending to control energy policy might determine abortion rights in Florida

Over the past five years, the largest power company in the U.S. quietly financed groups working to restrict Floridians’ ability to change laws independent of the legislature.

How a utility’s silent spending to control energy policy might determine abortion rights in Florida
Emma Collum works with other volunteers to collect signatures in support of an abortion-rights ballot initiative from attendees during PrideFete in Wilton Manors, Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023. (John McCall / South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Published in the Orlando Sentinel

Over the past five years, the largest power company in the U.S. quietly financed groups working to restrict Floridians’ ability to change laws independent of the legislature.

Now, the changes to state law spurred in part by Florida Power & Light’s successful attempts to control energy policy are throwing up roadblocks for reproductive rights advocates fighting to overturn the state’s 15-week abortion ban.

“I have had people feel very overwhelmed because they have heard that the legislature has changed the citizen petition process to make it harder to reach,” said Emma Collum, a volunteer who’s been gathering signatures to get a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights on the 2024 ballot.

The state’s constitution allows citizens to amend it via petition. While Republicans have controlled the state house since 1996, Floridians have a history of passing progressive policies via those petitions. That’s getting harder. Since 2018, 13 Republican legislators have sponsored 22 bills in the state house designed to impede those petitions, a form of direct democracy known as ballot initiatives.

Four bills, including legislation increasing the cost of verifying signatures and shortening the window in which they can be collected, have become law.

During that period, FPL secretly pumped more than $14 million into a network of dark money groups, which ultimately steered millions into supporting steeper requirements for ballot initiatives. It paid more than $6.8 million to two powerful trade organizations, The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, which have been the loudest critics of ballot initiatives. And it has heaped at least $3.4 million in campaign donations onto key legislators who proposed or greenlit restrictive laws, according to an analysis of Florida campaign finance data.

Florida’s other power companies have also contributed at least $4 million to the two trade groups and $7 million to legislators pushing laws to impede ballot initiatives since 2018, the same analysis shows.

“Corporations are always the ones who have been whittling away, pushing lawmakers to every year come back with some kind of restriction,” says Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy organization.

FPL hasn’t taken a public stance on either the reproductive rights amendment or on ballot initiative restrictions. The company declined to comment on this story.

However, its lobbyists display a keen interest in the laws to hamper ballot initiatives, registering to appear in hearings about them 17 times — more than any other organization except the Chamber of Commerce. Only one other power company lobbyist, representing TECO and Peoples Gas, which are owned by Emera, registered to lobby on the bills.

Said former Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of the yearslong effort to make it harder to pass ballot initiatives: “You’re gonna find FPL’s fingers all over it.”

All of the Republican legislators and committee chairs who responded to requests for comment said that power company political contributions had nothing to do with how they viewed the bills.

“The only special interest that motivated me to work on these policies was the Constitution,” said former state Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican who sponsored two restrictive bills that passed. After sponsoring the bills, Grant received nearly triple the political donations from FPL and the trade groups, campaign finance data shows. He said the donations had nothing to do with his efforts to “defend Florida’s Constitution.”

FPL’s financial support for legislators and groups backing restrictions to direct democracy place it squarely at the intersection of two highly charged debates. The first, percolating between utility companies and those who accuse them of stalling the transition to clean energy, is familiar ground for the energy giant. The second debate, raging between a hyper-conservative state legislature that has severely limited reproductive autonomy and a popular mass mobilization determined to safeguard it, is foreign territory.

But the giants of the nation’s electric power industry sometimes go to great lengths to protect their bottom lines. When those efforts lead to limits on citizens’ ability to influence government directly, they can have unintended and sweeping consequences for democracy.

“I think that’s a great way of seeing how problematic our current system is,” says Howard Crystal, an attorney who advocates for consumer-friendly utility regulation at the Center for Biological Diversity. “When we’re talking about utilities spending their dollars to undermine the democratic process,” he says, speaking generally, “we’ve gotten so far afield of anything related to what they’re supposed to be doing in any way, shape, or form.”

Keeping the Constitution ‘clean’

On Jan. 27, 2020,  Ashley Lukis gave public comment before the Florida Senate’s Committee on Ethics and Elections on a bill to shorten the deadline for gathering signatures.

“Keep our Constitution Clean’s representatives have cataloged dozens and dozens and dozens of violations of Florida’s election code,” said Lukis, a top attorney at the law firm GrayRobinson chosen last week to lead the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Lukis, whose husband was at the time a deputy chief of staff for Ron DeSantis, painted a picture of a “problematic and largely unregulated” petition-gathering process.

Keep our Constitution Clean (KOCC) was a tax-exempt dark money group dedicated to making it harder to pass constitutional amendments. It sponsored its own 2020 initiative that – if passed – would have required any amendment be approved in two consecutive elections.

“Keep Our Constitution Clean had a buttload of money,” said Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy at the Florida AFL-CIO. “And they were throwing it around and everybody knew they were throwing it around.”

But because tax exempt groups don’t have to reveal their donors, nobody was quite sure where the money was coming from.

At least $10.2 million of KOCC’s $14.6 million budget came from a dark money nonprofit controlled by operatives at Matrix LLC, an Alabama political consulting firm that counted FPL among its clients, leaked records show. KOCC also paid a company belonging to Dan Newman, then a political consultant with Matrix LLC, some $130,000 in 2019, tax records show.

At the time, Newman and others at Matrix were working with FPL on a larger effort to squelch a 2020 “Energy Choice” initiative that would have ended monopoly power companies by introducing competition into Florida’s energy market, reporting from the Orlando Sentinel and the Miami Herald shows.

GrayRobinson declined to comment for this story.

Lukis’ words struck a chord with the lawmakers. Several bill sponsors interviewed for this story cited abuses of the petition gathering process as justification for the increased restrictions.

“There was a general view that there were abuses relating to the collection of petitions,” said former Republican State Sen. David Simmons, who at the time was the chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.

“If you trust Floridians to elect you, you should trust Floridians to put items on the ballot and amend our constitution,” said Ida Eskamani, director of legislative affairs at the State Innovation Exchange, a progressive think tank. “We should be working to make it easier for citizens to engage in the democratic process in the state of Florida.”

Undisclosed to senators was that KOCC itself was paying for petition gatherers who were being investigated in another state for abusing the process.

The bill  — SB 1794 — made it out of committee and ultimately became law. KOCC’s proposed amendment was rejected by Florida voters. The amendment to end power company monopolies was thrown out by the state’s Supreme Court.

Driving up the cost

The reproductive rights ballot initiative is popular. Supporters have collected over 600,000 signatures in just four months. But in Florida, popularity isn’t enough. You also need lots of money.

“Things have gotten more expensive,” said Laura Goodhue, VP of public policy at Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida. “I think restoration of (felon) voting rights was like $5 million. To qualify it’s $19 million right now.” she said.

In 2018, when the amendment restoring voting rights of felons passed, a petition to amend Florida’s constitution required 766,200 signatures. Signatures lasted for two years, and cost 10 cents each to verify. Once organizers had gathered 10 percent of signatures in a quarter of the state’s congressional districts, the state Supreme Court weighed in on the amendment’s language. If approved by the court, 60 percent of voters had to approve the amendment at the ballot box.

Today in Florida, someone wanting to change the state’s constitution needs almost 900,000 signatures. The signatures are only valid up until Feb. 1 of the next even-numbered year. The costs for signature verification are much higher, there are tight restrictions on paid signature gatherers, and the Supreme Court’s review is not triggered until an initiative has gotten 25 percent of its required signatures in half the state’s congressional districts.

Floridians Protecting Freedom, the group working to get the abortion rights amendment on the 2024 ballot, announced last week that it had gathered enough signatures to trigger the review.

It’s been the post-2018 laws that have “changed the world,” said Mark Herron, a Florida election attorney. Herron said the fact that signatures only have a shelf life of about a year now makes it “very difficult.” Add in the time you have to submit the initiative to court for review and “it takes millions and millions of dollars to get there,” he said.

The utilities aren’t alone in supporting groups and lawmakers behind changes to the initiative process. Other large industries – sugar, real estate, mining — contributed to a 2006 ballot campaign to raise the threshold for a constitutional amendment’s passage from a simple majority to 60%.

And momentum exists for further restrictions to the ballot initiative process, at least if Rep. Rick Roth has his way.

“We don’t have a democracy. We have a republic,” said Roth, who has sponsored legislation to restrict direct democracy each of his past seven years in the legislature. His signature proposal – which has been thus far unsuccessful – involves raising the threshold for the passage of a constitutional amendment to 66 percent.

Nancy Bowen, a Coral Springs commissioner who has been volunteering to gather signatures for the reproductive rights ballot initiative, which would allow abortions until a fetus becomes viable or to protect the life of the mother, says that attempts to clamp down on the process have spurred a sense of urgency among volunteers.

“I think that is why we’ve had so much success and momentum,” she said, adding that she carries a clipboard with petitions with her everywhere she goes. “I’m not waiting for some type of entity to come save me,” she added. “I see petitions being passed around all day at events.”

Trade groups flush with utility cash

A pair of powerful trade groups —  The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) — have been the most vocal advocates of changing the citizens’ ballot initiative process for decades. They’ve also pushed for policies that would pad the pockets of FPL investors, like a 2022 bill that would have hobbled rooftop solar in the state and was written by an FPL lobbyist.

FPL showers the trade groups with support.

Since 2018, FPL or its parent company, NextEra Energy, have given almost $2 million to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a powerful business-advocacy organization that lobbies on a variety of issues, in dues or as donations to political committees it or its employees control.

Lobbyists for the Florida Chamber of Commerce have publicly supported restrictive bills at least 19 times since 2019, records show. On at least three occasions, chamber lobbyists were the only ones at hearings expressing support for the restrictions.

“It’s always been the Florida Chamber of Commerce that is the main force behind it,” said Ben Wilcox, director of Integrity Florida, a government watchdog non-profit.

“The Florida Chamber of Commerce believes that the reforms enacted by Florida citizens and their elected legislature in recent years are needed to protect the Florida Constitution,” said chamber president Mark Wilson in a written statement.

Political committees linked to the chamber or to employees listed on its website donated some $9.5 million to key legislators or party committees pushing restrictive legislation since 2018, an analysis of state campaign finance records show.

Since 2018, FPL and Nextera have given AIF almost $5 million. Political committees associated with it or its employees gave almost $17 million to key legislators or committees. Lobbyists for the organization have publicly supported restrictive bills at least eight times.

The two trade groups, in turn, have flooded politicians who, among other policies prioritized by the Chamber and AIF, favor restricting ballot initiatives with campaign cash.

The Florida Chamber has been a key supporter of State Sen. Jason Broduer, donating over $850,000 to him over his career. Broduer in 2022 proposed legislation that would have limited initiatives only to certain subjects. His bill failed.

Brodeur declined to comment for this story.

Donations from AIF have been made at key moments during debates on restrictive bills.

Bob Rommel, co-sponsor of the 2019 House bill, received $2,500 from AIF while HB 711, which restricted how petition gatherers could be paid, was in deliberation.

“I have a stellar reputation and your question is insulting,” Rommel said in a statement when asked if the donation had influenced him.

And during the 2020 session, as Sen. Travis Hutson was successfully shepherding another restrictive bill, he received $25,000 from AIF. Hutson declined to comment.

Sarah Bascom, the spokesperson for both AIF and KOCC, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“You’re asking me, was there corporate influence anywhere in the Florida Legislature?” said former Democratic Rep. Joseph Geller. “Look at what passes, giveaways to one, tax breaks to another, restrictions on local government – I thought these guys were for local government!”

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Mario is an investigative reporter and a Dominican immigrant. His byline has appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The New Republic and NPR.

Mario Alejandro Ariza/Floodlight