On February 24, Florida Power & Light — Miami's electricity monopoly and the single biggest donor to politicians in Florida — lost a court battle with the Miami, South Miami, Pinecrest, and Miami-Dade governments over whether the company could string power lines from massive, 80-to-150-foot towers through South Miami-Dade County. The decision seemed like a huge blow to FPL, which is trying to build new nuclear reactors at the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station.
But this is FPL, the most politically powerful company in the state. If it can't win in court, it'll just ask its elected friends for help. Sure enough, fresh off that court defeat, friendly lawmakers are trying to change the rules to make it much harder for the company to lose in the future.
In late February, Florida Sen. Tom Lee and Rep. Clay Ingram filed bills to give the state's Public Service Commission (PSC) the sole power to tell electricity utilities what to do with their power lines. (Lee's bill was actually filed February 20, four days before the power company lost in court. Ingram's bill was filed February 27, three days after the ruling.)
The PSC, critics say, has long been an ineffective check on FPL's power. It's staffed primarily with FPL sycophants and energy-industry veterans and has been criticized for years as a kangaroo court that rubber-stamps anything FPL wants. (The PSC unanimously approved FPL's plan to raise customers' rates by $811 million earlier this year, for example.)
But, more important, FPL lost its court ruling because judges legally defined the company's power-line project as "development," which meant the towers were bound by local zoning codes. The new law would add "electricity companies" to the list of companies no longer bound by those zoning codes.
That list already includes gas and water utility companies. There is a legitimate argument that the law is outdated and should include either more companies or none at all.
It's the timing of the bills, however, that's so strange. The bills would go into effect immediately upon being passed, and Republican lawmakers are pushing the bills rapidly through their respective committees. Though it's unclear if the bills will have any effect on FPL's old proposal, they sure would make life easier for the company in the future.
FPL spokesperson Sarah Gatewood told the Miami Herald earlier this month that her company supports the proposed law changes. She said the laws "would also clarify that because the undergrounding of such facilities directly affects rates, the jurisdiction for those decisions should lie with the PSC.”
But opponents of FPL's power-line project — which critics say would jam gigantic towers along large portions of South Dixie Highway in South Miami-Dade — say the legally dense bills are actually designed to help FPL circumvent the courts in the future.
"The Cities of Miami, South Miami, and Pinecrest took them to Court and won," former Pinecrest mayor and state legislator Cindy Lerner, one of the architects of the initial suit to block the power-line plan, wrote on Facebook Tuesday. "But in an act of incredible hubris, FPL has just filed bills in the Florida legislature... to do an end run around our Appellate Court victory, (upheld by the [Florida Supreme Court].) and they are racing through the legislature."
Lerner says she began fighting the power-line project around 2012 when the idea was announced.
"Having been in the Legislature, I've always said that it’s the investor-owned utilities that dictate law in this regard," she tells New Times.
If approved, the original plan would have let FPL install 89 miles of towers through multiple lines, including one line that would travel through sensitive wetland areas. But for residents in many of South Miami-Dade's wealthier communities, such as Pinecrest, the towers simply came across as needless eyesores that would adversely affect businesses on South Dixie Highway.
Likewise, Lerner warns that if the towers were erected, they could interfere with the popular Underline project, which aims to transform a large stretch of public land beneath the elevated Metrorail line into a public trail and park.
"The Supreme Court validating this was a huge, huge victory," Lerner says. The Florida Supreme Court last month ordered Gov. Rick Scott's administration to re-review FPL's proposal.
But on February 24 — the same day as the Supreme Court's decision — Miami state Sen. Frank Artiles was at the Daytona 500 wearing a jacket embroidered with the logo for NextEra Energy, FPL's parent company.
Artiles just so happens to chair the state Senate's Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee. And at that committee's very first meeting of the year this month, Artiles immediately scheduled two bills favorable to FPL, including SB 1048.
After the Herald's Tallahassee bureau reported that Artiles had worn a NextEra jacket at the race (and raised $10,000 while watching the cars zip by), Artiles "updated" his expense reports — to reveal that FPL had spent $2,000 to send Artiles to Daytona and Disney World this year.
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Lerner says the news doesn't surprise her.
"I have a word of caution to legislators who continue to advance these bills," she says. "Take a look at what happened to Miguel Diaz de la Portilla." De la Portilla was a pro-utility Republican state senator who lost to Jose Javier Rodriguez, a progressive Democrat, in the 2016 election.
"If there was any one major reason he lost, it was because of his being a supporter of FPL's agenda every step of the way," she says. "Think twice about that."