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Report: With $43 million in donations, utilities wield influence over state regulators

Florida’s four major investor-owned utilities have more power than just what they generate. A combination of campaign finance, political contributions and lobbying expenditures in the tens of millions of dollars has given the power companies vast influence over their state regulating body, according to a report released Wednesday by Integrity Florida and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"This really shows how the energy companies are able to capture the regulatory agency that’s supposed to be regulating them — the Public Service Commission — and (that’s) through their political influence with the Legislature," Ben Wilcox, one of the report’s authors, said.

As of late Wednesday, one of two dominant utilities in Tampa Bay — Tampa Electric Co. — had not responded to requests for comment. The report’s references to the other, Duke Energy, include Duke Energy Florida, its parent company Duke Energy and Progress Energy.

"All political contributions made by Duke Energy come from shareholders, not customers," Ana Gibbs, spokesperson for Duke Energy Florida, said in a statement. "Each contribution is done in accordance with campaign finance laws and are publicly reported."

The report examined campaign finance information from the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, and lobbying expenses from 2014 through 2017. According to the findings, the four utilities gave $43 million to political parties, state candidates and committees during the 2014 and 2016 elections. Of that, Duke Energy accounted for $10.3 million, while Tampa Electric spent $6.9 million. Florida Power and Light spent the most during this period at $22.9 million.

When it comes to lobbying the Legislature, the report pegs Tampa Electric as the top-spending utility. From 2014 through 2017, the Tampa utility spent about $2.24 million, according to the report. The next highest was FPL ($1.95 million) followed by Gulf Power Company ($1.01 million) and Duke Energy ($800,000). Utilities are required to disclose their lobbying expenditures in a range; the report averaged the ranges for each utility each year.

The utilities employ around 100 lobbyists annually, which the report pegs as "significant" compared to the Legislature’s body of 160 members. Between 2014 and 2017, Duke Energy employed an average of 25 lobbyists per year. Tampa Electric employed 24, FPL hired 32 and Gulf Power retained 13.

"(There is) virtually an army of lobbyists in the capitol," Wilcox said.

One of the most tangible examples of those lobbying efforts, the report says, is contributions to a political action committee in 2016. The four utilities gave a combined $20 million to the Consumers for Smart Solar PAC, which supported a constitutional ballot amendment that would make it difficult for companies looking to compete with major utilities to provide solar energy. The amendment ultimately did not pass.

Duke Energy gave $6.7 million to the PAC, the second highest after FPL at $8.1 million. Tampa Electric gave $2.2 million, while Gulf Power gave $3.2 million.

Integrity Florida and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy are calling for several reforms, including more independence for the Public Service Commission, a ban on campaign contributions to state candidates and political committees and more precise lobby compensation reporting.

Related coverage: Report: Review shows Florida’s utility watchdog has become a lapdog>

The report builds on an October report from Integrity Florida that accused the Public Service Commission of letting state utilities significantly influence its decision making. That report looked at decisions the regulator made in recent years and determined that the board focuses on "what additional money a (utility) company wants, at the expense of attention to what the public interest needs."

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Contact this reporter at [email protected] or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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