Tampa Bay Times’ mind-boggling figures in ‘rooftop solar fight’ don’t add up


Consider the eye-grabbing Tampa Bay Times’ front-page headline Wednesday: $43M spent to limit solar.

Beyond the silliness of assuming that every dollar utilities donated this cycle is part of a plot to fight rooftop solar — as if there is nothing else they care about — the story is screwed up six ways to Sunday.

If a politician were to use these numbers, PolitiFact would rate them somewhere in the range of Mostly False to Pants on Fire.

Let’s start from the top:

“Lost in the tumultuous presidential election and the down-ballot fears, something big has been happening quietly in Florida this year: Electric companies have dropped $42.7 million into political campaigns.”

Well, $42.7 million rounds up to $43 million so this makes sense … until you read the next line:

“Since January 2015, $20 million of the industry’s profits went to finance and promote Amendment 1, the ballot initiative that attempts to frustrate the expansion of consumer-owned rooftop solar in Florida, but another $15 million went to fuel the campaigns of a select group of powerful legislative leaders to prepare for a prolonged war against rooftop solar.”

Hmm …  $20 million to Amendment 1 plus $15 million on campaigns adds up to $35 million … not $42.7 million or $43 million.

Where’s the other $7.7 million to $8 million? Keep reading.

“According to Division of Elections reports, the biggest spender on the effort is Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, which has poured $22.2 million into political campaigns this cycle — $14.2 million into state legislative campaigns, and $8 million to Consumers for Smart Solar, the utility-backed political committee promoting the amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.”

OK, so FPL donated $14.2 million toward “state legislative campaigns” and an additional $8 million to Consumers for Smart Solar for $22.2 million.

If that sounds high, it’s because it is.

The Division of Elections shows the sum of all of FPL’s donations to candidates and political committees excluding Smart Solar this cycle is $6.1 million.

Combine this with about $8 million to Smart Solar, and you get roughly $14.2 million. Not $22.2 million. 

Could this account for the $8 million discrepancy between the headline and second paragraph?

Here’s the story’s next line as it appeared in the Times’ print edition (with bolds added for emphasis):

“Duke Energy, the St. Petersburg-based company and the state’s second-largest utility, spent $13.3 million on legislative campaigns including $6.7 million promoting Amendment 1. “

And here’s the same passage as it appears at TampaBay.com (again, bolded added for emphasis)

“Duke Energy, the St. Petersburg-based company and the state’s second-largest utility, spent $13.3 million on legislative campaigns and another $6.7 million promoting Amendment 1.”

In print, it’s $13.3 million total. Online, it’s $20 million. Which one is right? Checking the Division of Elections database, it turns out neither is correct. 

Duke gave $6.7 million to Smart Solar and about $1.3 million to other political committees and candidates for a total of a little under of $8.1 million. The magnitude of this error is in the $5.2 million to $11.9 million range.

Tampa Electric Co., the third largest utility, has pumped $4.7 million into the political system, including $3.8 million for the amendment, and Gulf Power has invested $2.5 million, including $2.2 million to the political committee backing the amendment.

On the positive side, the Gulf Power numbers appear to be correct! Unfortunately, TECO’s numbers are wrong multiple ways.

First, TECO did not give $3.8 million to Smart Solar; it gave $3.2 million. Second, the story suggests $0.9 million went to other political committees and candidates or, if we account for the first error, $1.5 million. Wrong either way.

The Division of Elections shows about $1.7 million. Add this to $3.2 million in Smart Solar dollars, and the total is $4.9 million, not $4.7 million as reported in the story.

If you’re keeping track, the total of the actual figures for all the utilities combined is $29.7 million, including Smart Solar contributions. 

The Herald/Times inflates this total by more than 40 percent, and the Pulitzer-promoting Tampa Bay Times put a $13 million error on its front page.

How the Herald/Times can jointly botch something this badly is mind-boggling.


Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


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