Ron DeSantis Is Helping Utility Companies Keep Floridians in the Dark

Utility companies flooded Ron DeSantis’s campaign coffers with donations. Now, the Florida governor is allowing them to withhold information about widespread power shutoffs to their struggling customers.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis speaks about his new book The Courage to Be Free in the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on March 5, 2023 in Simi Valley, California. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

As more than $9 million in utility and utility-connected cash flooded the coffers of Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s campaign and the state Republican party he controls, his appointees to a little-known body allowed utility companies to stop disclosing information about how they are shutting off the power for thousands of struggling Florida residents.

In November 2021, Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC) issued a memorandum allowing electric utilities to stop disclosing their shutoff data. The memorandum, which reversed the commission’s September 2020 decision to collect the data to track the pandemic’s effects on utility customers, came after DeSantis stacked the board with his appointees. The move came less than a month after commission members approved the largest electric rate hike in Florida’s history, resulting in a 20 percent increase in costs to residential ratepayers.

Now it’s impossible to know how many customers have been disconnected from their electric utilities for being unable to pay their increasing power bills. NextEra — the parent company of Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light — disconnected 738,000 Floridians in 2021 and 1.1 million Americans nationwide since 2020, according to a report from Bailout Watch last month. If that disconnection rate continued, noted the report, NextEra would have shut off 1.2 million customers in 2022. But we do not know the total, because the DeSantis-appointed Florida PSC allowed the company to hide the data.

Besides NextEra, another utility company operating in Florida, the Southern regional monopoly powerhouse Duke Energy, cut off power to over six hundred thousand customers since 2020. Nationwide, utilities shut off power 5.7 million times since 2020.

There is no systematic disclosure of utility shutoffs across the country. Data provided to us by the Energy and Policy Institute, which coauthored the report with Bailout Watch and tracks utility influence, shows that thirty-two states report utility disconnection data. According to the data, only Florida and Wisconsin allowed utilities to reduce the amount of data they provided in 2021.

When he announced his campaign for the governorship in January 2018, DeSantis pledged to “drain the swamp in Tallahassee, which needs to be drained, just like Washington.” But shortly after he was elected, DeSantis aggressively began raising money from businesses with interests before his office.

Of the $9.5 million that has flowed into the Republican Party of Florida from electric utilities and their affiliated PACs since 2019, $2 million has come in in the past nine weeks, as DeSantis preps a widely anticipated run for the presidency as the main GOP primary opponent to former president Donald Trump.

In particular, NextEra and Duke are the two biggest electric-company donors to DeSantis and the Florida GOP since 2019. Duke has donated $4 million to the Florida GOP since 2019, while NextEra has given more than $2.2 million to DeSantis and the Florida GOP, according to our analysis of state campaign finance reports.

Former top DeSantis aide Susie Wiles, who is expected to be a senior official in Trump’s 2024 campaign, previously wrote in a memo that the Florida GOP was “interchangeable” with DeSantis’s main campaign account as he prepared for his competitive 2022 reelection campaign, according to a 2019 document that was leaked to the Tampa Bay Times.

Roughly $1.5 million of the total amount flowing to Florida Republicans came from the Associated Industries of Florida (AIF), a utility-backed political committee. Florida utility companies NextEra, Tampa Electric, Gulf Power, and Duke have funneled more than $1.6 million into AIF since 2019.

AIF also receives support from other major business interests in the state, including Disney, HCA Healthcare, and sugar conglomerates.

Since the 2020 election cycle, NextEra and Duke have additionally contributed more than $760,000 and $180,000, respectively, to the Republican Governors Association, which donated more than $21 million to DeSantis’ reelection campaign, Florida campaign finance records show.

Meanwhile, the Florida GOP’s gifts to utility companies keep coming. In early December, the Bailout Watch report noted, Florida regulators approved a fuel rider, or a cost increase tied to the price of fuel, allowing utilities to pass the cost of higher fuel prices to consumers, without affecting their enormous profits. Company executives have been handsomely rewarded for such political wins. Top executives at NextEra gave themselves a 59 percent raise between 2020 to 2021. Both Duke Energy and NextEra spent $8.3 billion on dividends from 2020 through the third quarter of 2022, according to the Bailout Watch report.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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