DeSantis paved the way for utility hikes while benefiting from contributions

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Florida Power and Light allies to the utility oversight commission, which later approved the company's rate hike.

Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' reelection campaign has reportedly taken millions of dollars in donations from a business network that includes the largest utility in the state and groups closely associated with it at the same time as the utility has implemented unprecedented rate increases.

Florida Power and Light Company serves more than 12 million people, according to its website, and is the largest utility company in the country. In a video posted by the nonprofit media website More Perfect Union, Alissa Jean Schafer, research and communications manager at the Energy and Policy Institute, said: "FPL is also one of the biggest political spenders in the state. And that is how FPL has been able to gouge working-class Floridians over $1.5 billion in rate increases over the next couple of years."

The Florida Public Service Commission regulates utilities in the state. DeSantis, who is running for reelection against Democrat Charlie Crist, appointed four out of five of the current members of the commission, which in October 2021 agreed to rate hikes for the utility that went into effect in January.

Several consumer organizations filed suit with the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the rate hikes. One of the plaintiffs, an organization called Floridians Against Increased Rates, or FAIR, said in a statement, "FAIR believes that these increases are unnecessary and unjust, and accordingly, FAIR and other consumer parties have appealed this 'settlement' deal to the Florida Supreme Court."

In 2020, the Florida legislature passed a law placing a 12-year cap on a person's service as the head of the state's Office of Public Counsel; the move was reportedly aimed at J.R. Kelly, who had served in the position since 2007 and had worked on behalf of the public interest in cases of utility rate hikes. Kelly stepped down in January 2021, and his successor, Richard Gentry, negotiated the rate hike with FPL.

As the Energy and Policy Institute's Schafer notes in Perfect Union's video, FPL has long maintained political pressure on the Legislature, spending at least $18 million on political campaigns since 2018: "2018 was a blue wave across the nation. But here in Florida, thanks to millions of dollars from FPL, Republicans were able to secure a stronghold on the state, putting Gov. Ron DeSantis in the governor's mansion and securing a supermajority in the state Legislature."

Following the merger of Florida Power and Light Company with Gulf Power Company, Eric Silagy, the president and CEO of FPL, said in a statement posted on the company's website on Jan. 1 this year: "Customers in Northwest Florida will benefit from increasingly more affordable electric bills as part of the company's approved four-year rate plan."

But after the rate hike went into effect in January, thousands of residents received electrical bills two or three times higher than they had been.

The Pensacola City Council authorized the mayor to write a letter of complaint to the Public Service Commission; 17,000 people signed a petition on the website Change.org noting the catastrophic consequences of the increased bills, especially for the many customers on fixed incomes.

In an opinion piece in the Pensacola News Journal in March, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Crist wrote:

The state's largest utility gets away with gouging consumers who have no where [sic] else to turn for electricity because the utility regulators in Tallahassee are lap dogs rather than watch dogs — and because the utility controls Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature with its army of lobbyists and millions in campaign contributions.

Crist says on his campaign website that he will "fight for lower energy costs." He says that he will use the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help Florida transition to affordable clean energy and promises to appoint commission members that will "put the public back into the Public Service Commission."

Last week Crist blasted FPL for postponing meetings related to changes in fuel costs. Blaming the disruption caused by Hurricane Ian, FPL moved the meetings, which could be contentious, to mid-November, after the midterm elections.

"The political charade in this delay couldn't be more transparent." Crist told Florida Politics. "And it's Floridians who will pay the price."

In a statement to the American Independent Foundation, Schafer said:

Due to Florida utilities' over-reliance on fossil/natural gas as a fuel source, when the cost of gas goes up, the utilities turn to customers to foot that bill, while the utility continues to make profit from investing in decades worth of outdated, expensive gas infrastructure. Since the proceedings won't happen until after the election, we don't know how much the bill will go up this time. An additional $810 million was already approved by DeSantis PSC appointees last December.

Oct. 31, 2022: Updated to correct misspelling of Schafer and clarify the source of donations to DeSantis' reelection campaign.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation