TALLAHASSEE — The 2018 race for governor will be about power -- not just political power, but electric power, and the vast political contributions donated by Florida utility companies.
The consensus front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, has raised nearly $17 million so far, thanks in part to generous support from the state's biggest utilities, including Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy.
Records show that FP&L has contributed $587,000 directly to Putnam's political committee, Florida Grown, and that Duke has directly contributed $110,000.
But with widespread power outages and images of downed power poles fresh in the minds of Floridians, Putnam's GOP rival, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, is attacking the alliance between Putnam and power companies.
A Tampa Bay Times review of Duke's state regulatory filings shows the company reduced its tree-trimming budget in the area by 25 percent, from $9.9 million to $7.4 million last year.
Latvala blasted Duke for cutting back on its tree-trimming budget in Pinellas and Pasco counties, a decision he said produced widespread "misery" after Hurricane Irma.
"They need to be spending that money on improving their grid and not giving it to politicians," Latvala said.
Utilities trim trees to reduce the chances that limbs will topple power lines and plunge more customers into darkness for longer periods.
Even though Irma struck Tampa Bay with greatly reduced force as a Category 1 storm, more than three-fourths of Duke's Pinellas customers (78 percent) lost power. That was a much higher percentage than across Tampa Bay in Hillsborough and nearby counties, where Tampa Electric spent $10.7 million on tree trimming last year despite having only 60,000 more customers than Duke Energy.
"It's blatant and it's unconscionable," Latvala said of Duke Energy.
In response, Putnam noted that Latvala was not shy about taking Duke Energy money in the past.
"For 16 years, he has accepted their money," Putnam said. "I'm not sure whether he's choosing to send all of it back that he has taken over the years."
Latvala announced on Sept. 19 that he would take no more campaign money from utilities in this election cycle. He did not return past utility contributions.
"I'll give mine back if he'll give his back," Latvala said.
State records show Latvala's PAC, Florida Leadership Committee, received about $40,000 from Duke Energy in four separate checks over a two-year period, including the largest contribution of $25,000 on July 27, according to the Division of Elections web site.
Duke spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said all utility political contributions are from Duke shareholders, not rate-paying customers.
"Each contribution is done in accordance with campaign finance laws and is publicly reported," Gibbs said in a statement.
She said Duke's tree-cutting budget is done in three- to five-year cycles and varies depending on the type of power line, so that it "fluctuates." She said areas where vegetation can affect reliability are the company's priorities.
Latvala accused Putnam's committee of accepting as much as $2.6 million in utility money, a figure he said includes contributions by FP&L, Duke, TECO and Gulf Power and "laundered" through other pro-Putnam committees such as Associated Industries of Florida.
On Sept. 27, nearly three weeks after Irma first struck Florida, campaign records show Duke Energy gave $55,000 to AIF's political committee, and on the same date, Putnam's Florida Grown recorded receiving $50,000 from AIF's PAC.
However, two days earlier, on Sept. 25, state records show, AIF's PAC listed the $50,000 as an expenditure.
Latvala called that a case of laundering and said AIF kept the extra $5,000 as a "carrying charge," adding: "That's how it's done."
AIF disagreed. "AIF does not discuss its political activity other than to say that the comments made by the senator are categorically false," said AIF president Tom Feeney, a former Republican congressman and House speaker.
Putnam's campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Bevis, declined to comment on Latvala's claim. Duke's Gibbs declined to address it.
In the current election cycle, FP&L has contributed $2.4 million to candidates and PACs. Duke has given $712,000, Tampa- based TECO Energy $535,000 and Gulf Power $196,000.
Duke's largest contributions to candidates and committees are made in the company's name.
The utility also has a separate entity, Duke Energy Corporation of Florida PAC, that has given less than $300,000 to candidates, mostly in checks of $1,000, and has been dormant for four years.
The proximity of utility money moving to pro-Putnam PACs and to Putnam's own PAC was first reported by the Florida Politics news site.
In response to Latvala, Putnam criticized the senator for his statements last month that state officials overreacted to the threat of Irma by ordering mass evacuations days before the storm hit the peninsula.
"I find it a little difficult to take hurricane advice from somebody who said that it was no big deal and that the governor was being too cautious in preparing 16 million people for an evacuation," Putnam said.
Latvala never used the words "no big deal." He told the Times/Herald in early September that the state "may have overdone it a little bit" by ordering nearly one-third of the state's population to move out of Irma's way.
The rising tension between Putnam and Latvala places the two Republicans on a collision course two-and-a-half months before the 2018 legislative session begins.
As Senate budget chairman, Latvala has influence over whether Putnam's priorities will be funded by the Senate.
In addition, Putnam donors, such as Duke Energy, could face a more hostile political environment in the Senate in the session starting in January.
Latvala provided a hint of what's ahead at a recent Senate committee hearing.
Chief executive Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a statewide business group that has given $400,000 to Putnam's committee and $785,000 more through Chamber PACs, cited a lack of tree-trimming in Pinellas for the widespread outages and said people were complaining to him about it.
Wilson acknowledged he was not an expert on the issue and said: "I don't know whose responsibility that is."
Latvala, a member of the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee, told Wilson that the tree-clearing was Duke's responsibility, citing details of the Times' report on Duke's cutbacks in tree-trimming that was published that morning.
St. Petersburg-based Duke Energy has contributed a total of $10 million to candidates and political committees since 1999, state campaign finance records show. More than $6.2 million went to a committee that pushed a controversial solar power ballot measure that voters rejected last November.
A third possible GOP candidate for governor, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, has taken utility money in the past and said he will continue to do so.
Times staff writer Zachary T. Sampson and Times correspondent William March contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.